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Education Reform Pays Off By: Diane Ravitch
Hoover Institution | Friday, September 23, 2005

The nation was treated to good news in mid-2005 when the latest test results were released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the "nation's report card." In a test given regularly by this federal agency since the early 1970s, nine-year-old students earned the highest scores ever in both reading and mathematics. In this age group, higher scores were recorded across the board by boys and girls, African Americans, whites, and Hispanics. At the same time, achievement gaps among different racial groups shrank significantly.

The other age groups tested—thirteen-year-olds and seventeen-year-olds—had a disappointing showing. The performance of seventeen-year-olds was no better than their peers in the early 1970s, and thirteen-year-old students registered gains only in mathematics.

There's plenty of credit to go around for the impressive showing of nine-year-old students.

We should thank Terrell Bell, President Ronald Reagan's first secretary of education, whose National Commission on Excellence in Education warned against mediocrity in its report titled A Nation at Risk. That report got the attention of governors, legislators, business leaders, and editorialists across the nation.

We should thank the Southern governors, especially Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, James Hunt of North Carolina, and Richard Riley of South Carolina, who led the way in their states by demanding education reform and accountability for results.

We should thank President George H.W. Bush, who gathered the nation's governors in a summit to set national goals for education and keep up the momentum for reform.

We should thank Reid Lyon of the National Institute for Child Health and Development, who, after persuading Congress that reading failure was a public health problem, led his agency's multimillion-dollar reading research program.

We should thank President Bill Clinton and his Goals 2000 program, which granted states the funds to establish academic standards and tests.

We should thank the late Jeanne Chall of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, whose wise studies of reading led to the improvement of teaching across the nation.

We should thank President George W. Bush and Congress for passing the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires every state to test students from grades three through eight in reading and math, to pay extra attention to those who are lagging, and to reveal and address the gaps in achievement among racial groups. The act also requires state-level NAEP testing every other year, so that the public can compare national and state results.

All this attention and focus is paying off for younger students, who are reading and solving mathematics problems better than their parents' generation.

Now the challenge for educators, parents, and students is to escalate the gains that were reported for the tests given in 2004; to make sure that the momentum of the nine-year-old group is sustained in future years; to insist on higher achievement among older students; and to see that the same educational progress is attained in other important subjects, including history, science, geography, foreign languages, and literature.

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Diane Ravitch is author of "The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn" (Knopf, 2003).

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