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Happy Talk on School Reform

Ohanian Comment: The Times resident education editorialist is at it again, proving once again that one doesn't have to know anything about education to opine on it.

Three cheers for Gerald Bracey:


The editorial of October 22 claims that as long as the nation "fails to take school reform seriously, American children will fall further and further behind their peers abroad." But the evidence points to gains. In the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, from 1995 to 2003, only three of 22 nations had larger gains in 8th grade mathematics: Hong Kong, Latvia and Lithuania. Japan and Singapore actually lost ground.

In science, again, only the same three countries had larger gains and again Singapore and Korea scored lower in 2003 than in 1995. The six countries (out of 29) that scored larger science gains in the shorter period from 1999 to 2003 are mostly not competitor nations: the Philippines, Jordan, Israel, Malaysia, Lithuania, and Hong Kong.

Overall, U. S. 8th graders did substantially better in 2003 than in 1995, ranking 15th of 44 countries in mathematics and 9th of 44 in science, compared to 28th of 41 and 17th of 41, respectively.

Times editorials about education consistently ignore germane facts.


Gerald W. Bracey


The Bush administration responded characteristically this week when it put a positive gloss on national math and reading scores that were actually dismal - and bad news for the school reform effort. Faced with charges that his signature reform, the No Child Left Behind Act, was failing, the president played up the minor positive results. He should have seized the moment to acknowledge the bad news and explain what it would take to make things right.

He should also, of course, have reminded the nation that as long as it fails to take school reform seriously, American children will fall further and further behind their peers abroad.

The fourth grade reading scores on this year's National Assessment of Educational Progress were basically flat compared with 2003, even though the states are supposed to be ramping up student achievement and narrowing the achievement gap between poor and wealthy students. Fourth graders' math performance was also a clear disappointment, at a time when the country hopes to catch up with the international competition in science.

Critics of No Child Left Behind were quick to pounce, arguing that student progress was more impressive, by some measures, before the law kicked in. The truth is less depressing, but still extremely daunting. No Child Left Behind has reached that perilous interim phase that all reforms must eventually pass through if they are to survive. It has reaped the easy gains that were achieved by merely paying more attention to the problem. The next level of progress will require deeper systemic change, especially in the realm of teacher quality.

Most states have avoided this core issue and simply opted for repackaging a deeply inadequate teacher corps. Real reform will require better teacher training and higher teacher qualifications, which will in turn mean cracking the whip on teachers' colleges that have basically ignored the standards movement. The federal government was supposed to confront this issue head-on, but has tiptoed around it for several years. This week's test scores are not the end of reform. But they could well spell the beginning of a downward spiral unless Congress, federal officials and the states all pull together to move the country out of this trough and onto higher ground. That will mean hard work and more money - and a direct confrontation with the politically explosive issue of teacher preparedness. Happy talk won't get it done.

— Editorial
New York Times


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