There has been scant progress toward meeting those goals (tables). Less than half of America's schoolchildren read proficiently at their grade level. U.S. 12th-graders still score well below teenagers in almost every other developed country on mathematics and science tests. The 74% of students who have completed high school by the age of 18 rank the U.S. No. 17 in graduation rates after decades of leading the world, according to the Education Trust, a research group in Washington. "While we've certainly made some improvements, they're not nearly enough to keep up," says Milt Goldberg, who headed the commission that produced A Nation at Risk.NOT SO GLOOMY. Low-income and minority students fare the worst. Only 29% of all fourth-graders read proficiently at their grade level, but among low-income kids, the figure is 13%. By the end of high school, black and Hispanic children perform only at the level whites do in eighth grade. "This achievement gap is the most important issue of social justice in our society," says Tom Vander Ark, executive director for education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which doles out $100 million a year for education reform. The problem is an economic issue, too, since white kids will fill fewer than half of U.S. school seats by 2040, down from 65% today and 85% in 1950.
Still, the prospects are not quite so hopeless as the gloomy report card suggests. Many schools in prosperous, upper-middle-class suburbs have always done a good job, as have certain schools in solid middle-class districts. The real challenge lies with the continuing mediocrity that plagues too many of America's schools--and the disastrous state of education for kids at the bottom. The good news: The past two decades have seen an explosion of local reform efforts aimed at even the most intransigent problems. "We now have abundant evidence that there are strategies that can make a significant difference," says the Urban League's Price.
As discussion begins on Bush's education plan, to be debated in the Senate the week of Mar. 12, BusinessWeek set out to identify the best of these strategies. We posed a simple question: What would it take to achieve the President's goal of "no child left behind"? A broad range of experts and educators helped us draw up seven strategies that, pursued together, would go a long way toward fixing America's schools. The list isn't exhaustive. We left aside such pedagogical questions as how best to teach math or reading. Instead, we focused on changes in the system that would create an environment in which schools could succeed with far more regularity.
In evaluating solutions, we had one basic test: There must be compelling evidence that they work. The ideas that follow have all been battle-tested. In seeking them out, we went to schools, districts, and states that have beaten the odds, often in some of America's toughest neighborhoods. Among them: Humanities Preparatory Academy in New York's Chelsea neighborhood, a high school that often takes students who floundered elsewhere yet sends 91% of its graduates to college, including Harvard University and Northwestern University. At KIPP Academy, which runs middle schools in Houston and New York's South Bronx, more than 90% of students are Latino or African American, and virtually all are poor. Last year, 98% of KIPP's students in Houston passed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test, ranking it among the state's best.
Even more impressive are the states that have made large-scale improvements. In the 1980s, Kentucky ranked dead last in the country in its share of adults with a high school or college degree. But 11 years after the courts forced the state to redesign its entire system, 78% of adults now have a high school diploma, up from 53% in 1980. The share holding college degrees has doubled. And the Bluegrass State has leapfrogged other states into the middle ranks of academic performance. Similarly, sweeping reforms have helped North Carolina and Texas make strides, outpacing the gains of all other states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the primary test used to measure students nationally.
One clear lesson of all the reform efforts is that no single idea can solve the many ills of America's schools. "Schools are complicated institutions, which means you need a comprehensive approach that deals with everything at once," says former Yale University President Benno C. Schmidt Jr., now chairman of Edison Schools (EDSN
), the nation's largest operator of for-profit schools. That's why President Bush's program is just a downpayment on all that's needed.
True, he wants to tackle several areas at once, including technology, school choice, and mandatory testing. But because Washington plays a relatively minor role in education, Bush's proposal doesn't come close to providing the radical action required. Most reforms, from tougher accountability to pay-for-performance for teachers, face stiff opposition that can only be overcome by the states, the highest level of government with leverage over the country's 90,000 schools.HEFTY OUTLAYS. At the same time, however, the U.S. must also pony up more money for serious reform. Bush wants a $2 billion, or 10%, boost in federal K-12 spending. But that's pennies out of the $360 billion total the U.S. shells out annually on public education. No one has tried to figure out what it would take to provide every child with an adequate education. Wyoming took a shot at it and came up with $7,400 per student a year, or 18% more than what it had been spending. The cost would certainly be higher in many states with big cities and many poor families.
Still, as a starting point, a national increase like Wyoming's would run an extra $60 billion a year. Even half that, if used wisely, could make a dent. But real change will require everyone--Washington, the states, and school districts--to dig deep into their pockets. For that, the political environment has never been more conducive. "Almost every governor has an agenda to improve the schools," notes Ted Sanders, president of the Education Commission of the States. The question now is whether it's enough to give every American child a real education.1. PAY TEACHERS FOR PERFORMANCE
Few factors affect students' performances more than the quality of their teachers. A Tennessee study in 1996--to cite just one of many making the same point--found that fifth-graders who had three years of effective teaching improved their math scores by 83%, vs. a 29% gain for students with ineffective teachers. Yet many teachers are unqualified. One-third of secondary school math teachers and roughly half of physical science teachers didn't major or minor in the subjects they teach. Often, "the most senior teachers opt for the nicest schools, while we put our weakest teachers in the hardest locations," says Robert T. Jones, president of the National Alliance of Business (NAB), which backs training and education initiatives.
The appalling shortage of quality teachers stems in part from chronically low pay. Any college grad who wants to teach must be willing to endure a lifetime of subpar wages (chart). Now schools face the near-impossible mission of filling the 2.2 million teaching vacancies expected over the next decade.
Aggravating the problem is an outdated salary structure unrelated to what teachers do in the classroom. Most teachers are still paid under the so-called single-salary system developed in Des Moines 80 years ago. Everyone with the same seniority and degree is paid the same. That approach marked a step forward in 1921, when it corrected the practice of paying male teachers more than female ones. But the system has become a straitjacket that's stifling schools, which can't reward the best teachers or pay more to lure math and science graduates. "It doesn't offer teachers any real opportunity for professional advancement," argues Lowell Milken, chairman of the Milken Family Foundation.
The solution: Pay teachers more, and scrap single salaries for a system that rewards teachers for what they contribute to student learning. On Jan. 30, four leading business groups--the NAB, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the National Association of Manufacturers--endorsed a plan along these lines. These groups would, in return for higher teachers' pay, raise the bar for new teachers. Educators would be paid according to how well they perform in class and mentor other teachers, with the chance to reach a max of $100,000. Meanwhile, professional development would be expanded.
Connecticut has shown that such reforms can work. Starting in 1986, it raised teacher salaries by nearly one-third. Today, they're still among the nation's highest, averaging around $53,000 and peaking at more than $80,000. Simultaneously, the state hiked requirements for new teachers, including passing an exam in their subject area. New teachers work with a mentor to improve their technique. Then they are evaluated. The review covers lesson plans and teaching techniques and "evaluates their ability to foster learning," says Raymond Pecheone, who oversees teacher evaluation for the state. Those who don't cut it by their third year are out.UP THE LADDER. The payoff has been great. It has avoided the teacher shortages of other states. "We turn away three [applicants] for every one we let into our teaching program, and the grade-point average of those accepted is 3.4," brags Richard L. Schwab, dean of the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut. Teacher attrition is down, and Connecticut has made huge gains in student achievement, especially in reading, where it ranks first in the nation.
Now reformers elsewhere are adding more rungs to a career ladder teachers can climb. Last fall, Cincinnati negotiated a new system with the local union in which teachers may ascend five rungs in their career--from apprentice to accomplished. Advances are based on a sophisticated measure of performance. Educators will undergo periodic evaluations, "and if you don't measure up, you can drop a rung and actually lose pay," says Kathleen Ware, the city's associate superintendent. Iowa is close to adopting a similar statewide career ladder.
Teachers themselves are one of the most difficult obstacles to such schemes. The country's two teachers unions, the National Education Assn. (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), support higher pay to attract more qualified talent to teaching. And "we support different ways of providing compensation to teachers," says AFT President Sandy Feldman, who notes that her union backed the Cincinnati plan. But the unions are skeptical about some aspects of reform. NEA President Robert F. Chase, for example, opposes paying more to attract math and science teachers. "Is their work really more important than teaching kindergarten or first grade?" he asks. Such thinking ignores the marketplace reality that those trained in math and science have many other opportunities.
Teachers at the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Los Angeles even had to withdraw from the union to keep working there after the school adopted a pay-for-performance ladder. In 1990, 70% of Vaughn teachers had less than three years experience. The school serves 1,300 Hispanic elementary kids in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Turnover was high, and Vaughn ranked among L.A.'s worst schools.
Three years later, Principal Yvonne Chan converted Vaughn into a charter school (which means it receives public funds but is otherwise largely autonomous). In 1998, she set up a system that bases pay on a teacher's ability to help kids meet California's standards and gives bonuses to high achievers. Top performers can earn $68,000 a year, 20% more than in other L.A. schools. But the local union insisted that Vaughn teachers return to a regular public school. Some did, but after an ugly debate, most left the union and endorsed the plan.
Today, most of Vaughn's 69 teachers seem to enjoy the challenge. "When I was in the union, I didn't feel teachers were being asked to work up to their full potential," says Jose Salas, who quit the union to teach at Vaughn. Now, "there's a feeling of controlling one's destiny." Test scores are soaring, and the state ranks Vaughn in roughly the top 10% of schools serving similar inner-city students.
Improving teacher effectiveness also requires professional development. Today, the average U.S. teacher receives just eight hours of training a year, less than 10% of what teachers get in Japan, for example. But look what happened in New York's District 2, which serves 23,000 students in Manhattan. In the mid-1980s, it began devoting 8% of its budget to teacher instruction, compared with less than 3% spent at the typical U.S. school. At P.S. 130, in Chinatown, Principal Lily D. Woo began holding breakfast meetings, Saturday workshops, and summer sessions to train her staff in more effective methods for teaching literacy. Today, District 2 ranks second among 32 districts in test scores, up from 17th in 1985.
More pay and training cost big bucks. Still, warns the January report by the NAB and the three other business groups, "without high-quality teachers, our efforts to improve student achievement are destined to fail." It's a question of paying now or paying later.2. MAKE SCHOOLS SMALLER
Two years ago, Yrcania Castillo was kicked out of Hunter College High School in New York. Although the school is highly regarded, Yrcania found it too competitive and impersonal. "My attendance and grades were terrible," she admits. Then she discovered Humanities Prep, a small school in Manhattan that specializes in giving kids a second chance. Yrcania blossomed in the intimate environment of the 175-student school, where she's now a senior. "At Hunter, they didn't care, but here they're really concerned," says Yrcania, 17, who has applied to college. Without Humanities, "I would likely have ended up on welfare," she says.
For decades, U.S. education has operated under the assumption that bigger is better, especially in high schools. After former Harvard President James B. Conant advocated eliminating smaller schools in favor of large, comprehensive ones in the 1950s, most urban high school students began attending factory-like schools with 1,000 students or more. Today, many have become cauldrons of violence, pitiful achievement, and high dropout rates.
It's time for a 180-degree turn. New construction should favor "small neighborhood schools, with 200 to 500 students," says Jack Clegg, CEO of Nobel Learning Communities Inc. (NLCI
), a for-profit school operator. It's too costly to dismantle large dysfunctional schools, but they can be turned into several schools-within-schools, allowing kids and teachers to form closer bonds.
Several cities are already downsizing schools. New Visions for Public Schools, a reform group, has helped to create some 40 small schools in New York, including Humanities Prep. Chicago has 150 small schools after a decade of effort by the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "None is bigger than 350 kids, and all are run more like communities than factory schools," says Workshop Director Michael Klonsky.REBORN. The movement is proving that the intimacy long offered by elite prep schools can work minor miracles in disadvantaged districts. Student attendance climbs, and dropout rates fall, according to a new study of Chicago's small schools by the Bank Street College of Education in New York. The schools in the study are located in Chicago's poorest neighborhoods. "It's like a village, where all of the teachers know the students," says Alice Perry, whose daughter, Mary, is a student at Best Practice High, a new Chicago small school.
The school-within-a-school concept makes smallness work even in cavernous buildings. Look at the Julia Richman Education Complex on New York's Upper East Side, or the Cregier Multiplex, a block from Chicago's United Center. As large schools, both had epitomized all that was wrong with urban education. Then they were reborn. Each now houses several specialized small schools, such as Julia Richman's Urban Academy, whose intensive liberal arts program is regarded as among the best in the nation.
There's a similar movement to slash class size. While there has been some controversy about the value and cost of smaller classes, a landmark 1980s study in Tennessee called Project star found that they're especially helpful for young children who often need extra individual attention. Students in kindergarten through third grade were randomly assigned to classes of 12 to 17 pupils, of 22 to 26 pupils, and to large classes with an aide helping the teacher. The result: Those in the small classes did better. The gains persisted even after students left third grade. The star project has fueled efforts to reduce class sizes in the early grades. But overcrowding remains a problem.3. HOLD EDUCATORS ACCOUNTABLE
Lucy McVey took over as principal of Blanton Elementary in Austin, Tex., in 1996 with one mission: to remove it from the state's list of low-performing schools. Blanton earned the stigma after its mostly Hispanic immigrant students scored poorly on the TAAS. To shake things up, McVey required teachers to attend staff development sessions that ran till 8 p.m. She enticed 600 working-class parents to attend a baked-potato social, where she exhorted them to get more involved. "It was a tremendous struggle," McVey says. Some teachers even quit. But after just one year, math scores jumped by 33%, reading scores by 25%--and Blanton got off the list. Further improvements have landed it on the state's list of blue-ribbon schools.
Blanton is a textbook example of what President Bush believes accountability can do for schools nationwide. His plan calls for annual assessments of students in math and reading from grades three to eight, which would require a huge increase in standardized testing. Today, only 15 states--including Texas--administer such tests in each of these years. His plan would give assistance to low-income schools that fail to make sufficient progress. If a school didn't shape up in three years, its students would get federal funds to attend a better public or private school.HORNET'S NEST. Critics warn that annual testing would create test mania and divert kids from broader learning. But there's ample evidence that performance can rise with well-designed accountability systems that use tests in addition to other measures. In North Carolina's ABC program, each school gets a target for how much they should improve on the state's test each year. Schools that meet the standard receive a bonus of up to $1,500 per teacher. The neediest schools are assigned a team of top-rated teachers, plus an administrator, that spends a year helping to "conduct staff development and forming action plans for borderline teachers," says Elsie C. Leak, who oversees the program. So far, 85% of schools receiving aid have earned their way off the laggard list. North Carolina, with Texas, has outpaced all other states in gains on the NAEP tests.
Or look at how Texas helped to improve the three districts around El Paso, one of the poorest areas in the U.S. The schools had been dreadful for so long that people assumed nothing could be done, says Susana Navarro, head of the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, a community group formed in 1991. Then the group set high standards, worked to improve teacher quality, and relied on the TAAS exams to measure progress. Now, 70% of El Paso's children pass the exams, up from about 50% in 1994. "Accountability [has been] the most valuable contribution," says Navarro.
Testing often stirs up a hornet's nest among parents and critics. While there's little opposition in Texas, a backlash is building in states that conduct more difficult tests. In Massachusetts, 45% of high school students have been flunking the test that will be required for graduation starting in 2003. This has parents worried that their kids won't graduate on time--or at all.
Similar tests have driven up the dropout rate in Cincinnati, where kids must pass five Ohio tests to graduate. Last June, 92% of 12th-graders but only 35% of freshmen passed all five, says Kathleen Ware, associate Cincinnati superintendent. Some kids learn enough to bring up their score, which is the goal of the tests. But a bigger reason for the discrepancy is that some 40% of incoming students leave before graduation. "This is a long, tough road," warns Ware. It may be that in states with tough tests, students will need more time to meet the standards.
Another worry: that "schooling tends to get reduced to test prep, giving kids a watered-down curriculum," says Monty Neill, head of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a group critical of standardized tests. The best educators resist that impulse. At Blanton, McVey reinstated dance and piano when the school got off the troubled list.
The best way to counter the problem is to develop tests worth teaching to. Unfortunately, quality varies widely. California and others states assess English using dumbed-down, fill-in-the-bubble tests. But tests in Massachusetts and New York require kids to read complex material and write extended analyses. The U.S. needs higher and more uniform standards. There are also more comprehensive ways to assess students. At the Urban Academy, a Manhattan public high school, seniors prepare final projects and present them to outside experts to qualify for graduation.
The entire accountability system remains a work in progress. But it would be wrong to give up on testing, warns Boston Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant. True, 56% of his 10th-graders flunked the state English exam last year and 66% failed math. "But we have to be very clear about what we want our students to learn," says Payzant, who warns that if the tests were abolished, pressure to turn around Boston's long-failing schools would evaporate. Even critics like Neill agree that "kids and their parents have a right to know if school is preparing them for something other than dead-end jobs and prisons." Without greater accountability, schools can continue to fail with impunity.4. OFFER MORE VARIETY
Most people associate school choice with vouchers, which allow parents to use public funds for private schools. But while vouchers remain stymied in a political and legal quagmire, there has been an explosion of choice in public school systems. Charter schools have multiplied from 100 in 1994 to 2,000 today. They serve a half-million of America's 53 million K-12 students, estimates Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington. Another 1 million or so kids have a choice of schools within the traditional public-school system, she estimates. By contrast, only about 20,000 students in a handful of cities attend private schools using publicly funded vouchers. Indeed, giving students a choice of public schools, where 90% of kids go, is a more realistic alternative than vouchers. It's also a far easier political sell, since the teachers unions support charters.
The rationale for choice lies in the competitive jolt it can give existing schools. "Choice and competition breed innovation and better performance," just as they do in business, argues Edison's Schmidt. Equally important is that "one size does not fit all in education," says John L. Anderson, vice-chairman of New American Schools, a nonprofit that helps schools implement comprehensive reform models.
One example is Perspectives Charter School in the heart of Chicago. It has just 150 students, mostly African American and Hispanic, in grades 6 to 12. All must observe the school's 20-point behavior code known as "The Disciplined Life." The code helps to create a safe environment, in part by training students how to resolve conflicts peacefully. Expectations are skyscraper-high. All students must apply to five colleges and can't graduate "unless they're accepted at a college, trade school, the military, or have a job," says Co-Director Diana Shulla-Cose. It's tough. But since the school opened in 1997, reading scores have doubled, math scores have tripled, and 19 of last year's class of 21 graduated and went to college.NEW MODELS. To ensure that students have access to educational approaches that best fit their needs, school boards should be overhauled and given the primary responsibility for creating choice in their districts. In effect, boards should help every school become a charter school, with the ability to set its own approach within broad guidelines. Boards would set the guidelines and oversee the results to ensure that schools meet performance standards.
To encourage more variety, educators and some companies are coming up with what amount to national brands for educational methods. Already, more than 3,000 schools in all 50 states have adopted one of New American Schools' models. They range from Success for All, which targets improving literacy, to Co-Nect, which creates high-tech schools. Meanwhile, Edison now runs 113 schools, up from 79 last year, using an approach involving lots of technology and more time in school. KIPP, which stresses rigorous teaching of the basics, is about to roll out its model nationally.
More public districts are moving toward a multiple-choice model, as well. In New York, students can choose among dozens of differing middle and high schools, although there's no guarantee of acceptance at their first choice. Chicago has 15 charters, 12 citywide magnet schools, and 15 international baccalaureate programs and expects to bring in Edison and KIPP to manage some public schools.
One danger in the proliferation of options is that educators may chase fads or fruitless experiments that lead nowhere or even set students back. "We need far more research" on which models work best, cautions AFT President Sandra Feldman. Boards will have to hold schools to high standards and close them if they fail to deliver.5. PROVIDE ADEQUATE FUNDING
In January, a New York court issued a stinging indictment of the state's funding of New York City's 1.1 million-student school system. A staggering 31% of the city's teachers flunked the basic exam required of new educators on their first try, vs. 4.7% of those in the rest of the state. Hundreds of city school buildings have structural deficiencies. Overall, the state's poorest districts, mostly in the city, spend $2,800 per child less than the richest, mostly located in suburbs and upstate. That works out to some $60,000 less per class.
The result: Just 60% of city students who entered the ninth grade in 1996 have graduated. At every turn, city schools lack the resources to provide the "sound basic education" required by the state constitution, wrote New York Supreme Court Judge Leland DeGrasse, who ordered major funding reforms.
This decision, which the state is appealing, is the latest in a three-decade string of rulings striking down school-funding systems on constitutional grounds. Wyoming and Kentucky have made progress in reducing the disparities between the wealthiest and poorest districts. But there are still gaps in 42 states, according to the Education Trust. "We get killed," complains Chicago Schools CEO Paul G. Vallas, who says some suburbs spend twice as much as Chicago, even though it has half the state's special-ed students.
For years, the solution has been to try to equalize funding, which is most commonly based on property taxes, thus perpetuating the discrepancies between rich and poor districts. But any schemes that include blocking wealthy districts from lavishing extras on their schools breed resentment. Now, some reformers are embracing a more practical approach: adequate, rather than equal, funding. After a court struck down its funding system in 1995, the state of Wyoming took such a tack. It embarked on an extensive study of what makes up an adequate education and calculated that it costs $7,400 per student.
Of course, more money is no guarantee of success: Schools in Washington, D.C., are dreadful, despite annual outlays of $8,000 per kid. And while billions have been dumped into the federal Title I program, which helps the most impoverished schools, many recipient schools remain abysmal.
Still, extra dollars can work wonders. After a court struck down Kentucky's system, the state boosted spending on its schools by 20% in 1990. It targeted the money to backwoods schools such as Roundstone Elementary School in Mt. Vernon, Ky., which serves 270 mostly poor students. Its library was outdated, classes were large, and the building was crumbling. A 150% budget increase let Roundstone remodel the library, cut class sizes, and sharply expand professional development for teachers. The payoff? "We're now considered one of the best schools in the state," says Principal David Pensol. His fourth-graders ranked first in state science scores last year.
Uncle Sam may have to help resolve disparities between states. In 1998, for example, Connecticut and New Jersey spent $9,000 per student, twice as much as Mississippi or Utah. Indeed, the 10 bottom-ranked states spent less than the national average. As courts have made clear, it's unfair to consign kids to inferior schools because of where they live.6. INCREASE TIME IN SCHOOL
The amount of time kids spend in class has remained largely unchanged since the 19th century, when schools adopted the six-hour day and the nine-month calendar to accommodate farm life. The summer break is especially harmful to minority and poor kids. They enter the first grade half a year behind upper-income children but fall 2.5 years behind by the end of fifth grade, according to a Baltimore study by Johns Hopkins University sociologists Doris R. Entwisle and Karl Alexander. "Almost all of this gap can be traced to the summer vacations, when lower-income kids were treading water and upper-income kids were forging ahead," says Alexander. The reason, he concluded, is that upper-income families do so much better at keeping their kids stimulated during the summer."NO SHORTCUTS." The solution--requiring more time in school for kids who need it--is simple to say but difficult to achieve. "Schools have to be in session year-round," argues Chicago's Vallas. One problem, of course, is cost. There's also resistance from teachers, parents, and students, who all like the summer break. In addition, more time isn't as necessary for many affluent kids, giving the concept a penalize-the-poor tinge.
Still, evidence abounds that more hours in class can lift student performance (as well as alleviate child-care problems). It's one reason for the success of the KIPP Academy, which runs its two schools from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday, plus four hours on Saturday and an extra month in the summer. Arduous? Yes. But all 550 of its pupils in Houston and the South Bronx meet state standards, and many win scholarships to top prep schools. "There are no shortcuts to success," argues founder Mike Feinberg.
Similarly, in Chicago, 250,000 students, more than half of the total, now attend summer school or extended-day programs. They're a key reason why student test scores, though still low, have risen five years in a row.7. USE TECHNOLOGY EFFECTIVELY
Schools have embraced new technology with fervor in recent years. Some 95% of public schools are wired to the Internet, up from less than 35% in 1994. There has also been an explosion in the digital resources available to schools, from virtual courses and field trips to access to some of the world's great libraries.
Yet so far, technology has done little to improve the national report card. The problem: Most educators don't know how to use it to improve student learning, teacher cooperation, or even school administration. That needs to change, since no other tool offers more potential to transform our schools.
Just look at schools that have begun to tap the potential. Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., a suburb north of Chicago, offers students access to the Net from every classroom, office, library, and student common area. German teacher Margaret R. Plank uses e-mail to link her classes with students in Hamburg. The teens from both countries learn each other's language by discussing everything from mad cow disease to Germans' feelings about their country's role in World War II. "This gives the students a reason to improve," says Plank.GONE FISHING. Similarly, Washington State has created a statewide fiber-optic intranet called K-20 that links every college and school district in the state. Now "we're offering all kinds of virtual courses," says state superintendent Terry Bergeson. Seven districts, from Forks, a fishing town on the Olympic Peninsula, to North Franklin on the Columbia River, have teamed up on a project to help protect salmon. Kids monitor water quality, discuss their findings with each other through teleconferences, and report to their local communities.
A new generation of software is proving far more effective than traditional programs, which are often little more than rote learning dressed up for the Digital Age. Take the Cognitive Tutor, developed by Carnegie Learning in Pittsburgh to teach algebra and geometry. The program uses artificial intelligence to determine what students understand and what they need to tackle next. Rather than drill kids on equations, it requires them to use algebra to solve real problems. Kids using Cognitive Tutor score higher on math tests than students in traditional algebra classes and are more than twice as likely to complete geometry and higher algebra.
Dot-coms may have soured the business world on the Internet's commercial potential, but schools are still experimenting with abandon. Teachers use the Net to collaborate on lesson plans. In some schools, e-mail is being harnessed to expand communication between teachers and parents. The Gates Foundation is helping pilot a new online system for testing kids more frequently and effectively. The goal is to turn today's cumbersome standardized tests into a just-in-time diagnostic tool that would yield results instantly so teachers could address problems quickly. "In five years, we hope several states will have moved their entire testing system online," says the Foundation's Vander Ark.
Technology alone, like more choice or smaller schools, is no panacea for the ills of America's classrooms. But if deployed with the other reforms, it holds the promise of helping to close the yawning gap between schools in rich and poor communities. As with the other measures, it will take tremendous effort to adapt technology effectively. Doing so will require "a national mobilization...similar in scope...to bringing electricity and phone service to all corners of the nation," concluded the Congressional Web-based Education Commission last December. Those are good analogies for what it will take to implement all seven reforms outlined here. If the goal of "no child left behind" is a serious one, nothing less will suffice. By William C. Symonds
With Ann Therese Palmer in Chicago, Hilary Hylton in Austin, Tex., and bureau reports