America has tried many strategies over the decades to reverse the slow, steady decline in its public schools. Few of these have delivered real results. The "classrooms without walls" of the 1970s, for example, were supposed to open students' minds to creativity and curiosity. It worked for some kids, but too many others ended up merely distracted. In the '90s, school vouchers—publicly financed scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools—were praised as a way to give families choices and pressure schools to improve. Vouchers helped a fraction of families across the country but didn't instigate any real change. The 2002 No Child Left Behind requirements were supposed to guarantee that every kid learned at least the "three R" basics. English and math scores for elementary students did inch up, but the scores of average American high schoolers on international science and math tests continued to sink. The United States currently ranks 17th in science and 24th in math, near the bottom of the developed world.
Now President Obama has launched the Race to the Top campaign to improve schools by holding students to higher standards, paying bonuses to teachers whose students excel, and replacing the worst schools with supposedly nimbler and more intimate charter schools. This time will be different, he insists, because he's only going to promote strategies proven to help students, and he's going to reward the winners of his reform race with prize money from a stimulus fund of at least $4 billion, a slice of the more than $100 billion he set aside for education in the stimulus bill.
Reform-weary parents, teachers, and researchers, however, can't help wondering whether this initiative will be any more effective than its predecessors. The politics of education remain just as toxic as ever, notes Center for Education Reform President Jeanne Allen. She asks if Obama can stick to his promise of giving federal money only to the few states and schools that launch proven reforms when almost every state is facing budget pressures and considering cuts in education. States already have swallowed much of that education stimulus money just to plug these holes. Can schools truly improve when teachers are laid off, students are packed into bigger classrooms, and "extras" such as music classes and field trips are canceled?
The bad economic timing "makes it more difficult, but what's the alternative?" asks Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. "Sit back for a couple of years and accept the status quo?"
"Pockets of success." There is at least some basis for hope that this turnaround effort might actually be different. Warren Simmons, executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, notes the growing number of remarkable schools in barrios and slums, many of which are recently opened charter schools. Applying research that shows kids respond to longer school days, better teachers, and more challenging classes, a few dozen schools have "created pockets of success," he says. Obama's challenge is to "take that to scale and make it available to all."
The long view also supports some optimism. Gregg B. Jackson, an emeritus historian of education at George Washington University, notes that compulsory and universal education also were controversial and expensive but eventually won out. The history of previous reforms shows "ambitious changes, once initiated, are more likely to succeed than modest ones, although they take more time and effort." Obama's proposals are certainly ambitious. The question now is: How quickly can schools get to the finish line?