At an elementary school in Huntsville, Alabama, Beth Melton has 19 third-graders in her classroom—about half of whom came to school last August barely able to read.

"They are far behind," the teacher says, explaining that while her kids have made definite progress during recent months, it is unfair to compare them with children of greater advantage who live in more affluent areas of town.

Melton teaches at one of several Title I schools in north Huntsville. Under the Title I program, her school receives additional funding from the federal government because the majority of its students are on reduced or free lunch programs. Almost all students in the north part of the city are black. "Schools in Huntsville are extremely segregated," Melton says.

It is places like this one that the Bush administration had in mind when it issued its blueprint for education reform in January. Congressional leaders are aiming to produce a bipartisan bill that would promote a greater sense of accountability and assistance for schools, where teachers such as Melton, 38, face the challenges of strengthening the basic skills of students.

Education experts agree that such schools need dramatic improvement. "We're not successfully educating children of color and low-income as we are middle-class white children," says Jim Scheurich, an education professor at the University of Texas-Austin.

Yet many educators remain unsure whether the proposed reforms will produce the right results. Bush's proposal for annual tests, for example, does not persuade Melton, recently named Teacher of the Year at her school. In order to increase the accountability of schools, Bush has proposed that states test students in grades 3-8 each year. Forty-nine states have some kind ...

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