Blog/Multimedia

If Congress creates a public option in health-care insurance, will that inevita bly lead to a single-payer system, with the government everyone's insurer? And should that happen, would the single-payer system lower costs, enhance medical-service delivery and improve the health of all Americans, as its advocates promise.

Much can be learned about such questions by considering the history of secondary schools in America.

THE stimulus package will more than double the fed eral money being spent on K-12 education for the next two years. But will local districts spend the cash productively?

Flash back to 2002, when school reform was in the air in Philadelphia, one of the nation's largest and most troubled school districts. The district, under state pressure, revamped its governing structure and contracted out its 46 most challenging schools.

"An unfunded mandate," cry the critics of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In the words of Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee: "By neglecting his promise to provide the funding necessary to help each student to reach high standards, George W. Bush has made a mockery of the phrase 'leave no child behind.'" Virginia's Republican-dominated legislature recently struck a similar chord, passing (on a vote of 98-1) a resolution complaining that the law will cost "literally millions of dollars that Virginia does not have."

Few doubt that education in our inner cities is in desperate need of improvement. Decades after the civil-rights movement began, equal educational opportunity remains more a slogan than a reality. Minority-group students in U.S. elementary and secondary schools continue to learn much less than their white peers, as measured by a wide variety of tests of student achievement, such as the SAT and the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Success Academy is a big-time success story, as Charles Sahm makes clear (“What Explains Success at Success Academy?” features, Summer 2015). But what are the general lessons to be learned from the many case studies of successful chartering? Does it take the exceptional leadership of Success Academies’ Eva Moskowitz? Are school uniforms and a “no excuses” ethos the decisive ingredients (KIPP schools)? Are longer school days and an extended school year critical? Is data-based instruction the solution (Achievement First)? How important is a demanding academic curriculum (BASIS schools)?

In an important new report, America Achieves tells us that middle-class students in the United States are trailing their peers abroad. U.S. students were significantly outperformed by peers in 24 countries in math, if one looks only at those who fall just above the median position on its index of social and educational “advantage.” Among those who fall just below the index median, U.S. students ranked 32nd.

Over the past two decades, gains of 1.6 percent of a standard deviation have been garnered annually by 4th- and 8th-grade students on the math, science, and reading tests administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the nation’s report card. An upward trajectory of 1.6 standard deviations cumulates over 20 years to 32 percent of a standard deviation, well over a year’s worth of learning.

We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000,” the president told the country in his State of the Union speech. His comment was based on a pioneering study by Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff, published in this issue (see “Great Teaching,” Research), which for the first time combines tax data that reveal earnings at age 28 with information on student learning when that
person was in elementary school.