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National Perspective | Washington Outlook

2 Gloomy Education Reports Should Serve as Guideposts for Reform Effort

April 16, 2001|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

With good reason, cries of alarm and despair erupted when the dismal results of the latest national reading exam for fourth-graders were released earlier this month. By contrast, few noticed when the outgoing Clinton administration in January released a comparably bleak assessment of Title I, the federal government's principal program to help low-income children perform better in school.

Yet the two reports should be read in tandem. Together, they underscore the difficulty of improving student performance, even after two decades of concerted school reforms. But the reports also highlight some promising pathways out of this forest of failure. If Congress and the White House look hard enough, they can find insights to guide their rewrite of the major federal education programs, an effort due to reach the Senate floor next week.

No one had to look very hard to find the message from the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress fourth-grade reading test: It landed like a meteor. Overall, reading scores for fourth-graders were no better in 2000 than in 1992. The gap between white and black students remained stubbornly wide (with almost two-thirds of black students, compared with about one-fourth of whites, reading below the "basic" level of minimum competence). Latino students lost some ground, with a slightly higher share (nearly three-fifths) reading below the basic level today than in 1992. And low-income students continued to perform far below those from better-off families.

Closing these chasms of race and class is the mission of Title I, which spends $8.6 billion annually on remedial services for low-income students. But the Clinton administration report showed entrenched problems in the ways that local districts are using that money.

If there's an overriding lesson from these twin portraits of futility, it's that President Bush and Congress have to think more boldly than they have so far--because the problem may be even more intractable than we've thought. But the studies also offer more specific lessons. Among them:

* Parents still matter most: Ever since sociologist James Coleman's famous study in 1966, it's been clear that students do best when their parents commit to their education. The new NAEP results reinforce that abiding truth. Students who read for fun every day, watch television less, discuss their studies with their families daily and live in a home where reading materials are widely available all read far more proficiently than their classmates at the opposite pole on each of those variables.

Those results suggest there could be a high payoff for encouraging more parents to actively participate in their children's education. Yet the issue has received almost no attention. Many experts insist government can't do much to encourage that link. But that's too fatalistic; innovative programs, such as one in California that pays teachers to visit the homes of their students, have shown promise in helping parents (especially low-income parents) help their kids. This may be an ideal area where Washington can profitably pair up with religious charities, as Bush is urging.

* Title I needs competition: Most people agree Title I needs more money. But the program also needs more pressure to produce results with the billions it receives. The Clinton study raises troubling questions about the way schools are spending their Title I grants; it found, for instance, that while the schools spent heavily on often minimally qualified, poorly paid teachers' aides, only 8% of Title I students had access to extended-time instruction after school or on weekends. That suggests too many schools are focusing more on jobs for adults than opportunities for children.

The bill coming to the Senate floor (a compromise between the White House and senators from both parties) steps in the right direction. It would prod schools that fail to improve student performance by diverting part of their Title I grants into vouchers that parents could use to purchase after-school tutoring. The problem is parents wouldn't get the vouchers until schools had failed for four consecutive years. A trigger of three years, or even two, might instill a more appropriate sense of urgency.

* The states need a benchmark: When they look into the mirrors of their own construction, states usually find few blemishes in their educational performance. But the Clinton study found that, while most states were reporting gains for Title I students on their local reading and math tests, the NAEP results for low-income kids didn't show nearly as much progress.

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