Report

The 2001 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?

Tom Loveless

Education commanded a prominent position in the 2000 campaign for president. Both candidates featured proposals for improving schools. Both talked about education on the stump, in campaign advertisements, and in televised debates. Within a few days of taking the oath of office, George W. Bush made education legislation the incoming administration’s top priority. Secretary of Education designate Rod Paige stood at Bush’s side as the president declared a vigorous new role for the federal government in school reform, an effort, Bush pledged, that would provide a better education for every American student and leave no child behind.

This pledge highlights a problem discussed in this report, the second edition of the Brown Center Report on American Education. The concern is with achievement gaps, the yawning disparities in achievement between the academically successful—be they students, schools, or nations—and the unsuccessful. Focusing on gaps demands that we think about achievement as not simply a phenomenon measured by test score averages. Statisticians would say that the distribution of achievement is now being taken into account. In the case of student achievement, for example, it means paying attention to the range of scores from top to bottom, the number of students performing at various levels of proficiency, and the learning differences that different scores represent. Focusing on gaps forces people to see education as a valued resource that is distributed differently to different students, inviting questions about the educational system’s fundamental fairness and a sober consideration of what it will really take to ensure that students who struggle academically learn what they need to learn, of what—truly—is required so that no child is left behind.

Although varying in content from year to year, the Brown Center Report is organized by three consistent sections. The first section uses evidence released in the previous twelve months to evaluate student achievement in America’s schools. This year, we investigate the enormous gap between the U.S. and other nations in mathematics achievement and analyze, in reading achievement, the gap between the nation’s best and worst readers in fourth grade.

The second section explores a theme in depth. This year’s theme is the culture of the American high school. A survey of foreign exchange students was conducted to get their impressions of American high schools. Responses indicate that the culture of high schools, and the low status of academic accomplishments within teen culture, may present formidable obstacles to the attainment of academic excellence.

The third section analyzes achievement in urban schools. Test score data from dozens of states were collected to determine how urban school districts are doing in comparison to rural and suburban districts in the same state. We present scores for 39 of the fifty most populous cities in the U.S. and analyze the performance of urban districts serving a substantial number of children in poverty. The data do not allow for any firm policy conclusions or recommendation, although the most popular urban school reforms of the 1990s are briefly discussed. This section’s primary objective is to estimate the achievement gaps that urban schools must overcome to reach parity with their urban and suburban counterparts.

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