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The public school system was established as a crucial part of our nation's democracy -- whether rich or poor, American children are granted the same opportunity to learn and succeed, making public education the great equalizer.
But not all schools are created equal, and in 2000 George W. Bush gained popularity in his campaign for president by introducing his plan to enact No Child Left Behind. That was one type of many education reforms implemented over the past decade, but as of 2006, America's international rankings have actually declined.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) compared the test scores of 15-year-olds across the world. From 2003 to 2006, the US fell in math from 24th of 38 countries to 35th of 57. In science, the US fell from 19th to 29th.
If the nationwide numbers are a mixed bag, the numbers for America's inner-city, low-income students are even more dismal, even though there are no shortage of experts trying to fix the problems.
Writing for the "New York Times," David Brooks described two camps that have evolved in the field of education reform. One group argues that poverty and other social factors drive high drop-out rates; schools alone can't combat that, so more money should go to community and anti-poverty programs. The other group says it doesn't benefit the high-risk, low-income students to go soft on them.
You might put Joel Klein in the second camp. He's the chancellor of New York City Public Schools and the man in the forefront of the education reform debate. The types of changes that were made in his schools are being replicated elsewhere.
"My core philosophy is you've got to start with very high and demanding standards -- that's what it's going to take in the 21s century," Klein said. "People say, well don't make it too hard on the kids; but the real world is going to make it hard on our kids. When you see what's going on in India and China and large parts of the developing world, you're going to understand that our kids are going to face tough global competition."
Klein supports mayoral control of the educational system, which is one of the hotly debated topics in New York.
"Instead of having a board, which is often characterized by the politics of paralysis, you're able to have a mayor to take the kind of bold and necessary action," said Klein.
Diane Ravitch is a former Assistant Secretary of Education and now a research professor at New York University. She believes mayoral control as a part of the school system is a problem, saying the structure makes it difficult to get basic information and that the needs of the public and parents aren't respected.
"There's a kind of squirreling of information, a kind of contempt for the public and a contempt of parents, in particular, that is just palpable," said professor Ravitch.
No Child Left Behind is another hot topic of debate. Some have criticized the law's narrow focus on math and reading, forsaking other subjects such as history, science and art.
Thomas Stevens, professor emeritus at the College of Education and Human Ecology at Ohio State, said that No Child Left Behind, "... falsely considers schooling as similar to an assembly line where identical ingredients are molded into the same products."
While he admits it needs improvement, Klein defends No Child Left Behind, saying it focuses on areas that needed the most emphasis, and was created to bring accountability to teachers. He says critics of the law need to address the accountability issue.
Professor Diane Ravitch staunchly opposes No Child Left behind, saying, "It doesn't contain any curriculum at all. No Child Left Behind is simply about a focus on test scores. And so every school district is trying to figure out what can we do get those scores up, and they really don't stop to long to think about, are these tests good measures of what our students know, and are we actually destroying education by focusing so relentlessly on scores, scores, scores."
Bob Edwards Weekend" is a two-hour interview showcase, in which celebrated host Bob Edwards highlights the life and work of interesting people, from newsmakers, historians, and authors to artists, actors, and regular folks too. The show is produced by XM Satellite Radio and distributed nationwide by PRI.