June 15, 2013
Can the latest education reforms improve student achievement?

With American students lagging behind their counterparts abroad in reading, math and science, taxpayers and policymakers are engaged in divisive debates over school choice, academic standards and equality of access to quality education. Historically, reformers have pushed two key approaches: enforcing accountability in meeting academic standards through high-stakes testing and expanding “school choice” by opening more public charter schools and providing government vouchers to help pay private school tuition. Now, 45 states are taking another approach: voluntarily adopting new, rigorous academic standards that some say could overhaul how math and reading are taught. But the movement has run into resistance from both the right, which fears the loss of local control of curriculum, and the left, which worries that children will be tested on materials dictated by the new standards before they’ve had time to learn them.

Parents protest the closing of the popular Peninsula Preparatory Academy Charter School in Far Rockaway, Queens, in New York City. (Getty Images/SPencer Platt) Parents protest the closing of the popular Peninsula Preparatory Academy Charter School in Far Rockaway, Queens, in New York City. The city said it would close the academy in 2012 after it failed to meet five of nine standards it had promised to reach, but the school sued to remain open and won a restraining order allowing it to stay open. A recent study found that only 17 percent of charter schools nationwide significantly outperform traditional public schools. (Getty Images/SPencer Platt)

A dozen years after Congress passed a landmark education reform law, the American public education system remains troubled, with more than half of the states not expected to meet the proficiency standards in reading and math set out in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. 1 In addition to establishing Race to the Top in 2009 — an incentive-based approach that offers competitive grants to states to boost educational achievement — the Obama administration has introduced a $75 billion, 10-year Preschool for All initiative. The goal is to expand high-quality public preschool, full-day kindergarten and Head Start programs to help close achievement gaps between low-income and minority students and their wealthier peers. But the measure faces probable delays in Congress. 2

Meanwhile, at the state level, 45 states and the District of Columbia have voluntarily adopted rigorous new “Common Core” standards in reading, writing and math to better prepare students for the global economy, but a backlash against the movement is developing in some states. At the same time, the “school choice” movement continues to expand, with 12 states and the District of Columbia providing tax-supported vouchers for students to use for private school tuition. And, during the 2009-10 school year, 1.6 million students — up from 300,000 a decade earlier — attended public “charter” schools, which have more autonomy and flexibility than their school district counterparts. 3