California gave its new high school exit exam for the first time this year and newspapers across the state last week made much of the "abysmal" results: less than 45 percent of the state's 9th graders passed the test.  While a committee of teachers had recommended that the state set the passing score at 70 percent, the state board of education voted to lower the bar to 60 in English and 55 in math rather than allow even more students to flunk the test.

Given the nature of the test, however, the school board fears and journalistic alarms seem unwarranted.  Unlike the standardized tests around which the rest of California's  accountability system is built, the new graduation test is aligned with the state's academic standards. (The California Senate last week passed a bill that would replace off-the-shelf tests given in other grades with tests tied to the state's standards.) The English part of the high school exit exam covers material that students are expected to learn through the end of their sophomore year and the math test covers geometry, algebra, and statistics.  Expecting most students to pass a high school exit exam at the end of their first year of...

In the past several days, you may well have read assertions by U.S. Senators, explaining their vote against the Gregg amendment to include a voucher pilot program in the big elementary/secondary education bill, to the effect that there is no evidence that such programs work. (Of course they were voting against a demonstration intended to find out whether such programs work!) But they were wrong. Paul Peterson and his team at the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) have created a veritable cottage industry of voucher studies, including careful evaluations of a number of the privately funded programs that have recently proliferated. Some of those studies include information on student achievement. Others don't. Two recent ones that don't look at achievement are nonetheless illuminating on many other fronts. In January, the Harvard team published its evaluation of San Francisco's BASIC Fund Scholarship Program. In March appeared a review of the national Children's Scholarship Fund. More are in the pipeline. Based on phone surveys of parents and students, their great contribution is comparing the experiences, attitudes and satisfaction of those who used a private scholarship to move from public to private school with those who did not. Both these...

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Japan is overhauling its elementary-secondary education system. According to the Education Ministry, explains Craig Coley, "in place of 'overemphasizing intellectual education' schools will teach more 'zest for living.' The curriculum will stress creativity and independent thinking."

This is great news for America and bad news for Japan. Just as the U.S. shows signs of recovering from the excesses of progressivism, Japan plunges in. Perhaps its children can now look forward to an overdose of "relevance," encouragement to learn whatever they like, teachers who see their roles as "guides on the side," and nobody held responsible for meeting external academic standards.

When that day dawns, we'll no longer feel that Japan has superior schools. U.S. children will surpass their Japanese age mates on international assessments of math and science. And Japan will ooze deeper into the fever swamps of goofy education ideas.

Perhaps I exaggerate. It's difficult to imagine a land as top-down, buttoned-down, homogenized and precise as Japan ever turning its kids loose to learn whatever tickles their fancies. Not, in any case, until Japanese trains stop arriving at the precise moment and place that the timetable dictates.

Still, the Education Ministry's Rainbow Plan, aka Education...

Senator James Jeffords may have made special ed reform even less likely when he let it be known that the White House's refusal to boost spending for this program was part of the reason for his decision to leave the GOP, writes Michelle Cottle in this week's New Republic.  She explains why real change is unlikely and why that's most unfortunate for children.

"Reform school," by Michelle Cottle, The New Republic, June 18, 2001.

Terry Moe's important new Brookings book has a title meant to recall his and John Chubb's influential 1990 work (also published by Brookings), Politics, Markets, and America's Schools. This volume should have an impact, too. Based primarily on a massive 1995 survey, it analyzes U.S. public opinion on vouchers more thoroughly and exhaustively than anyone has ever done. While opinion is not the only proper basis for policy, in a democracy it's mighty influential. Moe's findings are not easily summarized in politician-style sound-bytes, however, because on these matters the American public feels several different ways at the same time. It certainly believes in public schools and, for the most part, is satisfied with its public schools. Yet it also thinks private schools do a better job and, if money were no object, many people bent on seeking the best schools for their children would move to them. Hence they'd welcome vouchers. But they care not just about the abstract "market principle" of vouchers. They also have strong views about how a voucher program should work. Perhaps their two most important opinions are (a) that a voucher program should include church-affiliated schools but (b) all schools participating in a voucher program...

The recent domination of U.S. spelling bees by home-schooled students isn't hard to explain: many of their parents see rote memorization as a valuable learning technique, while this old-fashioned practice is frowned upon by most teachers who learned their craft in schools of education.  John Derbyshire explores how indispensable memorization is to advanced learning in a National Review article that's loaded with clever mnemonic devices (e.g. "One idle damn Sunday, Dad killed cheating thief and lied to cover it," as a way to remember the Ten Commandments).

"Thanks for the memories," by John Derbyshire, National Review, June 25, 2001. Article not available at www.nationalreview.com.

In Washington, DC, where the high school graduation rate is only 57 percent, what happens to the other 43 percent?  Many later try to earn their diplomas by passing the GED, but only 34 percent of those taking the GED exam in DC pass it (compared to 70 percent nationwide).  In this week's Washington City Paper, Garance Franke-Ruta puts a human face on these glum statistics in a long cover story on dropouts trying to turn their lives around. 

"Filling in the blanks," by Garance Franke-Ruta, Washington City Paper, June 8, 2001. http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/cover/cover.html

National Center for Education Statistics

The federal government's National Center for Education Statistics publishes two indispensable volumes each year, without which nobody has essential data at hand. One is The Digest of Education Statistics, consisting of hundreds of pages of numbers sans interpretation or commentary. The other is the more selective and subjective Condition of Education. The latest edition is just out. Weighing in at almost 300 pages, it is largely free of the creeping politicization that beset some of these volumes in the late Clinton administration. And it's full of telling factoids and trend lines. Here are a few from the section on teachers:

  • Among (1992-93) college graduates who became teachers (within 5 years of graduation), 55 percent majored in education. (So much for subject mastery.)
  • Those who didn't prepare for teaching careers while in college but became teachers anyway were more likely (35%) to have scored in the top quartile of their entering college class than those (14%) who both prepared to teach and became teachers. (Sounds to me like praise for alternative certification.)
  • Those who taught in private schools were more likely (33%) than those who taught in public schools (15%) to have ranked in
  • ...

The Colorado Commission on Higher Education (CCHE) wanted to determine whether the state's ed schools were tailoring their teacher training programs to the state's academic standards for students as well as to new performance standards (set by the state Board of Education) for schools of education. The CCHE asked the National Association of Scholars (NAS) to examine four teacher ed programs. In turn, the NAS commissioned a study by David Warren Saxe, a professor of social studies education at Penn State (and a member of the Pennsylvania state board of education). His report was submitted to Colorado authorities last year but has only now become public.  After examining reams of documents describing the teacher training programs (which were provided by the ed schools themselves) and visiting all four schools, Saxe has penned a devastating critique.   His report paints a vivid picture of ed schools bowing to the gods of progressivism and national accreditation rather than to traditional academic content and effective instruction, notwithstanding state policies requiring the latter. Saxe finds many of the training programs to be overly politicized, with courses and training sessions emphasizing social justice, cultural relativism, racism and homophobia.  Much of the coursework is at best irrelevant...

The charter schools of the Lone Star State have been much in the news of late, particularly as the legislature grappled with a possible moratorium on their creation. That didn't happen, but people are understandably interested in how they're doing. After all, by 1999-2000, there were 142 such schools enrolling nearly 25,000 youngsters. How are they doing? The Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) commissioned two Texas A & M economists to examine four years worth of charter data. The most encouraging result: Texas's so-called at-risk charter schools (about half of all the state's charters, each serving more than 75 percent at-risk kids) showed stronger pupil achievement gains than regular public schools. But the other charters aren't. The authors also note that many youngsters entering a charter for the first time, especially if it's a brand new school, experience a one-year drop in scores on the Texas statewide tests. They comment that, at a time when many new charters are opening and many children are newly enrolled in them, "A one-year look at average changes in test scores for charter students will mainly capture the decline in performance of the new entrants." They further observe that charters are serving "a disproportionately...