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Despite 25 years of reform, U.S. schools still fall short

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"I don't think you would have had No Child Left Behind without 'A Nation at Risk,' " says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, noting that it served as a "clarion call" for policymakers from the district level to the federal level. And he says some of that has borne fruit.

"I don't think there's much doubt that public schools today are better than they were 20 or 30 years ago," Mr. Jennings says. "The problem is that the demands are increasing, not just in the US but internationally, so we're measuring ourselves against higher standards than we've ever measured ourselves."

Some experts say that those concerns expressed in the Nation at Risk report are even more sharply defined today. The US, which once led the world in terms of higher-education participation and the education of its workforce, is now at the middle or bottom of the pack of industrialized nations on most education measures.

Two of the biggest issues, says Professor Darling-Hammond, are funding inequities and teaching quality.

"If you look at those countries at the top, [better teachers] is the way they've done it," she says, noting that countries as diverse as Finland, South Korea, and Singapore all tend to have programs where teachers are educated for free and sometimes even paid a salary during their studies, get on-the-job mentoring and significant professional development opportunities, and earn an excellent salary.

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