It's not easy getting a handle on education reform. For one thing, the term means different things to different people. For another, it impacts students differently from one state, city, or school to the next. Given those limitations, what can parents expect to see happening as education reform takes hold?
Most students will have more time in school, more testing, and more choices.
Making it last
In seems probable that school days and school years will become longer. Time for non-instructional activities such as recess, lunch, and traveling from class to class will be reduced. The most significant changes will be made in high schools, where there is a trend toward replacing the traditional seven or eight period day with longer class periods, called "blocks." Longer class periods lend themselves to inquiry-based instruction that actively engages students in learning. Students take fewer subjects each day or term and go into greater depth in each; teachers work with fewer students at a time.
Testing and learning
Most states have new curriculum frameworks based on recently developed national standards. These frameworks drive state testing. School districts must ensure that district curricula are aligned with the state tests, which can be a strong catalyst for change at the school level.
While the traditional disciplines still form the core of what children study in school, most states have added world languages and health to the core curriculum. Languages are best learned before age 10, in an immersion setting, but most elementary schools provide little, if any, substantive instruction in a foreign language. Districts will have to rethink how and when languages are taught if students are to be truly proficient in a language other than English by the time they graduate from high school.
In all grades, there will be increased emphasis on problem-solving and inquiry. Students will be expected to apply knowledge and skills to real-life problems and to demonstrate "habits of mind" that support lifelong learning. They may be doing more projects and more writing.
As districts upgrade school buildings and technology tools, students will learn to use these tools for writing and research. New technologies will enable children to manipulate data, to experience physical phenomena and historical events through simulations, and to access resources around the world. Technology can provide powerful learning tools, but it remains to be seen whether funding will be adequate to ensure that all students have access to them.
How will students be evaluated?
Accountability is a prevalent theme in education reform. There is growing interest in more frequent testing and in using test results as a measure of school effectiveness. States usually mandate testing in grades 4, 8, and 10. Many state tests include open-ended problems and writing samples. When school funding, pay raises for teachers and administrators, and high school diplomas for students depend upon school and individual test results, it is called "high stakes" testing.
Another form of assessment, portfolio assessment, is a popular way to document student progress over time in meeting standards for a particular grade level or course. Students include representative samples of their best work in their portfolio. Portfolio assessment is effective when teacher expectations for student work are high and students have a clear understanding of what constitutes quality work. Portfolios are used in conjunction with tests and quizzes to evaluate student performance.
Will teachers and teaching change?
What we know about effective teaching grows daily, augmented by brain research that promises to impact educators' and parents' beliefs and practices. Education reform has brought higher standards for teacher certification and recertification, and districts often provide in-house training for professional staff. Such training and support -- especially time for teachers to plan and learn together -- are critical.
Teachers are continually challenged to tailor instruction to diverse student needs while maintaining high standards for all. Debate continues about whether heterogeneously or homogeneously grouped classes result in greater student learning. There are benefits for students in both types of classes. "Inclusion" refers to the widespread and fairly recent practice of serving students with special needs in regular education classes rather than pull-out programs. All students learn best when teachers honor diverse ways of knowing and doing, and when class size and the adult/student ratio are appropriate.
Parent involvement and choice
Education reform gives parents more options than ever before. While superintendents and principals generally have more authority over hiring and discipline than in the past, parents can serve on school councils, curriculum task forces, and school boards. Parents may also have the option of sending their children to magnet or charter schools, or to schools in neighboring communities. In a few large cities, parents may qualify for vouchers to send their children to private schools.
Promise vs. reality
Looked at globally, education reform calls for a redesign of our education system: new structures for schools, new expectations for student performance, new roles for students, teachers, and parents. In many places, education reform legislation has not been supported by adequate funding or structures for implementation, and little has changed for children in classrooms. In some places, restructuring has already had a positive impact on student learning. As active citizens, parents have the power to ensure that the promise of education reform becomes reality for all children.