The 2003 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?

October 1, 2003

This is the fourth edition of the Brown Center Report on American Education. The report premiered in the fall of 2000, as the presidential campaign between George W. Bush and Al Gore drew to an exciting finish. This year’s report is published as Democratic candidates vie for their party’s nomination for president. Education will figure prominently in the 2004 election, as it did in the last. President Bush will herald No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as the most important federal education legislation in a generation. Democrats will argue that without ample funding the law is an empty promise. They will point out that the Bush administration put the brakes on federal education spending just as NCLB was getting off the ground.

The partisan debate over how to improve American education has been following the same script for the past four years. Republicans stress holding schools accountable and make concessions on funding increases. They seek to neutralize the Democrats’ traditional strength with voters on education issues. Democrats stress the need for providing more resources to schools and make concessions on accountability provisions. They seek to present education as a key plank in their party’s domestic agenda for the country. This year’s Brown Center Report examines several issues that are important to No Child Left Behind and ongoing efforts to improve American schools.

The first section of the report analyzes the latest data on student achievement and asks how the nation’s students are doing in reading and mathematics. Achievement in rural schools receives a closer look.

The second section is a study of homework. Conventional wisdom is that higher academic standards, a bedrock of No Child Left Behind, have driven up the amount of students’ homework. Stories of tired, over-worked kids abound. After examining several different sources of data on the topic, the study concludes that virtually no evidence exists that homework has increased in recent years, nor that the homework load has become—or ever was—overwhelming. The stories of children laboring under onerous amounts of homework appear to feature a small proportion of children who, though their predicaments are real, are not typical.

The third section of the report presents a follow-up of last year’s study on charter schools. This year’s study examines charters’ test scores, with a special focus on achievement in conversion charters, schools that were previously regular public schools and converted to charter status, and charters managed by educational management organizations (EMOs), professional management firms. Both types of charter school can lay claim to a particular form of expertise. When a regular public school converts to a charter school, the most talented and experienced teachers and administrators usually stay on board. The very existence of educational management organizations is based on the premise that expert managers, who are usually not educators and come from the private sector, can employ their leadership skills to make schools more productive.

Readers should be informed that the author of the Brown Center Report, Tom Loveless, has had several professional affiliations with charter schools. These associations cannot change the data on which the following analysis is based, but they might have, in ways unknown, influenced the choice of questions in the research or the interpretation of the findings.