Conservatives are steamed about the concessions -- including the elimination of private school vouchers -- made in President Bush's plan to overhaul federal education policy. The reform legislation itself faces an uncertain future as congressional conferees work on a compromise between divergent Senate and House plans. And Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige himself has had to battle rumors, which he says are false, that he is frustrated and wants to quit.
Given all that, just how are things going at the Department of Education?
Great, according to a new report.
The department's report on how it has fared during the first 180 days of the Bush administration celebrates the fact that the House and Senate have passed education reform plans, both by wide margins. It also says Paige has visited 20 schools and four college campuses.
In addition, the report crows, Paige has launched an initiative to address long-standing fraud and mismanagement problems at the agency.
LOW-PERFORMING SCHOOLS: Since 1989, the New York State Education Department has issued a list of low-performing public schools that are targeted for corrective action, the kind of thing President Bush hopes to implement in every state with his education reform plan.
The idea is to spotlight the worst schools so they can either shape up or be disbanded. But so far, the results in New York are not encouraging, a report from the Manhattan Institute indicates.
Written by New York University researcher Joseph P. Viteritti, the study focused on New York City and found that just a small percentage of underperforming schools is put on the list. Even if a school makes the list, student achievement often continues to languish, despite the availability of new resources and the threat of closure.
Of the 98 New York City schools on the list, 88.1 percent of the eighth-grade students scored below an acceptable level in reading, and 95.7 percent scored below acceptable in math. In the schools taken off the list -- ostensibly for improving -- over the past decade, 77.1 percent of the eighth-graders still scored below acceptable levels on reading and 85 percent did so in math.
Some clues about the failing schools -- they have a disproportionate number of teachers who are not fully certified and have fewer than five years of experience in the classroom. Also, large percentages of their students are impoverished.
TEACHER PAY: For years, educational reformers have been divided on this central question: How much does money contribute to student achievement? Now, a Columbia University researcher has refined that question, asking how much do teacher salaries affect student achievement.
Quite a bit, she concludes.
Constance K. Bond, who in May received her doctorate in politics and education from Columbia, concludes in her dissertation that one of the best ways to spend education dollars is to raise teachers' salaries.
It is a proposition that some no doubt would disagree with, given the success of many Catholic schools and others that have relatively meager budgets and pay comparatively low salaries.
But Bond, a former Inglewood, Calif., teacher, says salaries are crucial to attracting the best instructors. Using a statistical analysis of state-level teacher salaries, teacher attrition rates and student achievement, Bond found that states with significantly higher teacher salaries, particularly as compared to other workers with similar education levels, had higher fourth- and eighth-grade math scores, lower dropout rates and better teacher retention rates. And all of that was true even when factoring in poverty rates, parent education levels and minority enrollments.