I got an article from the Brookings Institute, reviewing the 2008 Brown Center Report on American Education, from my principal a couple of weeks ago. It's been sitting on my "to deal with soon" pile since then. (The "to deal with soon" pile is actually more of a metaphor, than an actual pile. It's spread across desks, counters, tabletops, boxes, and filing cabinets in 2 counties.) I've just now finished reading it. It looks at 3 issues: Comparing states' standard assessments to an international standard called PISA and their relative abilities to show educational efficacy; mandatory 8th-grade algebra programs; and an analysis of big-city student achievements compared to the suburban and rural school districts surrounding them.
Part 1:) Brown Center says that supporters say that PISA can offer policymakers evidence on what works and what doesn't around the world. Brown Center says not so fast, and states some problems with that idea. I don't know anything about the specifics, and until I start working on my doctorate in International Curriculum Alignment and Benchmarking, I'm unlikely to do so. But I'm pretty sure that we don't have any kind of standard curriculum around the world, we don't have any aggreement (and no plans to get one) with Europe on what our students should know, how well they should know it, and when. So to look at the standardized tests of Europe without any curriculum context is like comparing apples to, oh, I don't know, front-lawn sod. This is sharply different from the International Baccalaureate program, which does include some curriculum content. (Not saying IB is the answer to all questions. Just saying.)
Part 2:) California and Minnesota have passed laws that mandate algebra for all 8th graders by 2011. Brown Center says that we shouldn't have all 8th graders taking algebra, at least until we figure out how better to teach lagging math students. In other news, eating too much fat causes people to gain weight. Of course we shouldn't mandate algebra for 8th graders. High exptectations are one thing, but algebra involves a certain amount of neurological development that not all developing people have achieved by the age of 12-14. We should DEFINITELY have the option of 8th grade algebra available to those who are ready--heck, 7th (or 6th) grade algebra should be OK. We should DEFINITELY work towards having preK-7th grade math instruction strong enough to prepare 8th-grade students for algebra. But to require it seems like an awful idea.
Part 3:) Big-city schools are improving on standardized tests as compared to the suburbs and rural schools surrounding them. Brown Center says the progress is slow but steady, and is not prepared to say why this is. NCLB? Maybe. Mayoral control of schools? Not sure. I have no opinion of this. I'm happy for the big schools that have achieved good results. Nowhere near enough data to do any better than that.