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What Educational Reforms Are Most Promising?

By Elaine Cassel

As the presidential election campaigns shift into high gear, all candidates--the Democrat's Al Gore, the Republican's George W. Bush, the Green Party's Ralph Nader, and the Reform Party's Patrick Buchanan--cite improvement of public education as one of their primary goals.

A report released in July 2000 by RAND, a nonprofit policy analysis and research organization, provides insight into the kind of reforms that have the potential for making a significant impact on student achievement.

The study is based on an analysis of National Assessment of Educational progress (NAEP) tests given between 1990 and 1996 to representative samples of 2,500 students in 44 participating states. Five tests were given in mathematics and two in reading at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels. RAND compared achievement across states and between students of varying family characteristics.

Key findings indicate that:
  • Reforms in math education are taking hold, as seen by uniform progress in math scores in almost all states.
  • Texas students ranked highest in improvements, Californians last, even though these states share similar demographics in terms of the proportion of Hispanic, non-Hispanic white, and black students.
  • Students that share similar family characteristics perform at the same level regardless of their state of residence.
  • Differences in state scores for students from similar families can be explained by per pupil expenditures and how these funds are used.
  • Higher performing students come from schools with lower pupil-teacher ratios in lower grades, higher participation in public prekindergarten programs, and a higher percentage of teachers satisfied with their teaching resources. Two-thirds of the Texas-California score differentials can be explained by the difference in these three factors.
  • Having a higher percentage of teachers with master's degrees and greater teaching experience seems to have little effect on student achievement.
  • Higher teacher salaries appeared to make little difference, perhaps because teachers' salaries are not tied to quality of teaching.
  • Remarkable gains in math scores in two previously low-performing states, North Carolina and Texas, are likely the result of institution of teaching and learning standards and student assessment and teaching accountability policies.
RAND concludes that states can increase student achievement if they spend education dollars more effectively to
  • provide prekindergarten programs to minority and disadvantaged students;
  • lower pupil-teacher ratios; and
  • provide adequate classroom teaching resourses.
RAND sees no significant gains to be obtained from increasing teacher salaries or implementing changes in teacher education.

You can read a summary of the report, entitled Improving Student Achievement: What NAEP State Test Scores Tell Us David W. Grissmer, Ann Flanagan, Jennifer Kawata, and Stephanie Williamson at

The entire report is online at:

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