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Sputnik plus 50: A half-century of school reform

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the launching of Sputnik, the Russian space satellite that, among other things, nationalized U.S. education as it had never been before.

In beating us into space, it was widely charged, the Soviets not only showed their superiority in science and technology but revealed America's dangerous educational failures. If we didn't shape up the schools, they'd win the Cold War. The date was Oct. 4, 1957.

As Congress struggles with re-authorization of NCLB, No Child Left Behind, the nation's complex education law, and California faces the governor's promised "year of education," it's a useful anniversary to remember.

In the half-century since Sputnik, we've had an orgy of school reform, state and federal, beginning with NDEA, the National Defense Education Act of 1958, through NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress testing program (now calling itself "the nation's report card"), to ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and NCLB, the great Bush-era reform of 2002.

We've gone from merging little high schools into big schools so they could offer richer programs, then back to programs to break them up into small schools; from phonics to whole language and back; from less homework to more homework; from holding failing kids back to social promotion and then (again) to retaining those who didn't make the grade.

Ditto for magnet schools, open schools, "whole school reforms," busing, compensatory education, drug-abuse and sex-ed programs, direct instruction, discovery learning and an endless parade of testing schemes and new curricula in math, science and history, many of them loudly introduced, then quietly abandoned.

And, as with the response to Sputnik, we've had no end of warnings from high-level commissions that if we didn't improve schools, the Germans and the Japanese would beat our economic brains out or (more recently) that the Chinese and the Indians would do it. The consistent message: The schools could (and must) do it all. In the meantime, other critical economic and social-service programs have been neglected.

There's hardly a politician or a business spokesperson who isn't an apostle of the faith. Just last week, President Bush declared that the latest NAEP test scores in reading and math showed that NCLB, the last vestige of his compassionate conservatism, was working. He thus measured one shaky premise with numbers from another.

What the latest NAEP scores (on fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math) really seemed to show is that so far at least NCLB doesn't make a whole lot of difference in improving the achievement of America's schoolchildren.

NAEP's wobbly measures give states great leeway on how many kids — say, English learners — they exempt from the samples of students that are tested. The more exemptions the higher the score, which is one reason why Texas consistently scores higher than California.

Nor is NAEP aligned with state standards; it doesn't necessarily measure the same material. And since nothing rides on a student's getting a high score, there's no great reason for making the effort.

What makes this germane now is that Congress is engaged in the knotty process of reauthorizing NCLB with its many parts and negotiating with the countless groups asking for fixes or for the whole thing to be killed. The outcome will have an impact on virtually every school in America.

NCLB is primarily a testing program demanding "adequate yearly progress" in math and reading in grades three to eight. The aim is to make all kids "proficient" by 2014. But since proficiency is defined by the states, the tests are an invitation to lower their benchmarks, as some have. California, with its rigorous standards, prides itself on not being one of them.

Despite its flaws — and despite the strident opposition of the National Education Association — NCLB deserves to pass. It's the best lever the nation has to make sure that the billions in federal education money targeted to poor and minority children will actually go to the education of the children it's supposed to benefit.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, recently circulated a draft of NCLB. It contained a provision closing a huge loophole that in effect allowed school districts to continue staffing schools serving poor and minority children with inexperienced teachers and another that would have provided some bonuses for successful teachers.

Both produced loud complaints from the education establishment about government micro-managing the schools, an issue that's at the heart of most state and national reform efforts. But if federal and state money is to be spent on the kids it's intended for, there's hardly another way.

Meantime, there's all that other critical stuff: health care, housing, preschool, economic and tax policy. The schools can't do it all.

Schrag can be reached at