The Challenge of School Reform

Despite some progress, we may be slipping further behind.

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The headline on the January print issue cover is meant to be provocative ["Will School Reform Fail?"]. I hope it's not predictive. The notion of failure might come as a surprise to those who follow the crucially important challenge of improving America's public education system. News over the past few years has been encouraging: more rigorous standards, a burgeoning charter school movement, private money and public talent focusing on a growing consensus about what works. And there are great suc­cess stories—some of which we tell in this issue. But they are mostly on an indi­vidual basis. Yes, the 100 best high schools we highlight are extra­ordinary institutions. But America has 22,000 public high schools, and too many of them are dreadful. The good news is that there seems to be general agree­ment among policymakers on how to make things bet­ter. The logjam of inertia has been broken, with broad acceptance of the need for ambitious national standards and ways to measure account­ability of schools and teachers; the need to train, deploy, and reward bet­ter teachers—while moving bad ones out—and the value of competition. At last, some big-city mayors have as­sumed the burden of fixing their schools and have struggled to cut through union and board-of-ed bu­reaucracies. On the national level, Arne Duncan, the education secre­tary, has an unprecedented pot of money to implement change and showcase best practices. This should be a moment of great promise.

That's when I get worried. Politics and self-interest are creeping back with a vengeance. Consider the No Child Left Behind law, a flawed but useful attempt to set national bench­marks, among other things, that is now dissolving into state-level games­manship and congressional bickering. Do we have a prayer of overcoming union opposition and getting a better bill out of a Democratic Congress? We've got some great commentary on the debate. Dynamism. For the third year, we're offering our own benchmarks via our high school ranking. With the gold medal list, and the silver and bronze winners featured online at, we've taken a by-the-numbers approach to defining success. The results are a broad mix of schools from all over the country. Many are magnet and charter, but a lot are open en­rollment. And, reflecting the dynamism in education, the gold medal list has more than 20 new entrants this year.

Much of our method is based on performance: Does a school exceed expectations? To reach the top, it's not enough to just take in a bunch of smart kids and graduate a bunch of smart kids—as many prosperous sub­urban school districts do. So you'll see that schools from places like New Or­leans, Chicago, and Tucson, Ariz., can do quite well. And if they can, why can't others?

What's it going to take to raise the level of America's schools? Please share your thoughts with me here or email We've all got a lot riding on the answers.