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US Education Secretary Predicts Challenging Time Ahead for American Schools - 2003-04-12

The U.S. secretary of education says competition for public funds means there are challenging times ahead for American schools. Despite a sluggish economy and expense of the war in Iraq, the official says plans to upgrade student performance across the United States are moving ahead on schedule.

Twenty years ago, a national commission described the troubled state of U.S. public education in a report titled A Nation at Risk. It called for higher standards and better testing to improve student performance.

In 2001, Congress approved a comprehensive plan requiring standardized testing in schools, with state governments setting the standards. Schools that fail to measure up risk losing federal funding.

This year, for the first time, all 50 states have submitted plans that outline their proposals for measuring student progress.

Education Secretary Rod Paige says in too many academic subjects, U.S. students still lag behind their counterparts in Europe and Asia. For example, the reading scores of fourth-grade U.S. students, which were low 20 years ago, have not gotten any better. And in the inner city, most fourth grade students lack even basic skills in reading. More than 80 percent of senior students in urban high schools do poorly on standardized tests in science and mathematics.

Tight funding is part of the problem, but the official said low expectations and the acceptance of poor performance are more to blame.

Still, he said, there are bright spots in the system. "I have personally witnessed schools that are teaching kids with the most deprived circumstances, kids who been essentially written off by other schools and society," he said. "Yet in the right schools with the right caring teachers and the right leadership in the principal's office, these schools are [improving] , the students are [improving]."

Education is largely a local concern in the United States, but the federal government has become more involved over the years to correct inequities and raise standards. Washington also provides about nine percent of the per-student cost of education. Critics call that figure too low, especially at a time of economic downturn when many states are facing budget problems. Mr. Paige said, however, that federal spending per student has gone up almost two percent during his tenure, at a time when federal funds have become tight.

He said holding students to high standards is a cost-effective way of improving education.