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Education put to the test

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Last year, Kristin Kearns Jordan took advantage of a recently minted law that allowed her to create a charter school in one of New York City's poorest neighborhoods. As soon as the public middle school opened, the dynamic Ivy Leaguer and her staff offered students something many had never experienced before: smaller classes and intensive instruction in reading and math.

This year, Ms. Jordan's young scholars at Bronx Preparatory Charter School - selected by lottery and largely from minority, low-income families - lit into their annual standardized tests and punched out average increases of 39 points in math and 10 points in reading.

Further south, in Philadelphia, English teacher Lynn Dixon surveys the classrooms she has worked in for 20 years and sees a less promising picture. Her tenure in the deeply troubled urban system has not left her optimistic. "I've just seen the same thing happen over and again," she says of

reform efforts, including the city's recent move toward smaller schools and longer academic periods. "They come up with one thing that needs to be the answer, but it never is."

Ten years into one of the most sustained drives to reform education in American history, the outlook for the nation's schools is decidedly mixed.

It's not for lack of effort: In urban and suburban schools alike, attention has been focused on reducing class sizes. New and clearer standards have been developed for what kids at each grade level should be able to learn and do. Students take many more state-mandated tests; soon, in more than 20 states, they won't be able to graduate without passing them. There is also more interest in requiring prospective teachers to prove subject mastery. More children are able to choose the public school they attend, and in a handful of cities they can even use public or private vouchers to help pay for private school.

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