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The Year of Change in Public Schools

A confluence of factors amounts to what I believe is a watershed in public education as schools reopen. Until now, the accountability movement has never gained full traction. But things are different. The Common Core standards in math and reading are being implemented by 45 states and the District of Columbia, and teachers are being increasingly evaluated by their students' test scores.

If these changes were not enough, charter schools and vouchers are slowly finding support in state legislatures. Fourteen states have passed laws allowing more charter schools to open, and eight states have expanded their voucher programs ("Biggest Changes in a Decade Greet Students," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 27).

It's interesting to note these trends in light of what is known about both. Studies have shown that charter schools do not outperform traditional schools serving similar students. Moreover, teachers in charter schools stay for two to five years on average, while teachers in traditional schools have an average of 14 years of experience ("At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice," The New York Times, Aug. 27). Meanwhile, although vouchers or their variants have been rejected by voters in 27 statewide referendums from coast to coast by an average margin of two to one, legislatures have persisted in thwarting the will of the people. In fact, the only voucher plans in existence were passed by legislatures.

Against this backdrop, the real question is whether students will receive a better education than they have so far. I think the answer largely depends on the definition of what constitutes a quality education. There is no doubt in my mind that some public schools have seriously shortchanged students. Washington D.C. serves as an example. But there are others as well. Nevertheless, I wonder if taxpayers have thought through what is likely to happen as the changes outlined above go into effect. Let's not forget that great expectations accompanied the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002. Despite the lofty rhetoric, however, the law has done little to deliver. That's because too much of student performance is determined by factors beyond the control of teachers. This is not an excuse; it is an explanation.

It will be interesting to see what transpires over the course of the new school year. If the past is any guide, I think that standardized test scores will rise slightly, and the achievement gap will narrow somewhat. Whether these results are cause for celebration is a matter of debate.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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