The idea that U.S. school performance is flat is indefensible. But unfortunately all too many people believe it to be true. Why wouldn’t they? This sentiment is so often stated that it is assumed to be fact, especially since the 2012 PISA results were released last December. For example, in a recent Washington Post column Is The U.S. Making the Grade in Education? columnist Fareed Zakaria wrote “The United States has muddled along over the past few decades, showing little improvement or decline” as if it was undisputed fact even without providing any evidence. Over at Education Week Marc Tucker tries to answer the question Why Has U.S. Education Performance Flatlined? by cherry-picking a few pieces of data that at first glance appear to support his assumption. Broadly speaking Tucker asserts the U.S. has made little progress since the 1970s in improving student achievement or graduating more students from high school or college.
Marc Tucker is not alone in pointing to such data to claim that U.S. schools are not improving which makes it vitally important to look at all the evidence to determine if indeed our schools have flatlined. As I recently wrote in the American School Boards Journal, the evidence is quite clear that our public schools have not flatlined but are making dramatic improvements in many areas.
Here is the evidence and you decide whether our schools have flatlined or flourished:
Students today are learning more than ever before
If you simply look at overall NAEP scores for our nation’s 17-year olds scores have improved by just six points between 1978 and 2012 it does appear that our schools have indeed flatlined. However, when you take a closer look a much different picture emerges. You’ll see that our nation’s black 17-year olds have improved by 20-points while Hispanic students improved by 18-points—these gains equate to nearly two years worth of learning. The results were even more impressive in reading where black students improved by 28-points between 1975 and 2012 which is nearly three years worth of learning while Hispanic students make a significant progress as well by improving their scores by 21-points. Such lines are hardly flat. Keep in mind that white students made significant gains during these time periods as well. Furthermore, similar gains were made by our nation’s 9- and 13-year olds.
A world leader in improvement
Our schools may not top the international rankings but few countries have improved their performance as much as we have. On the international Trends In Math and Science Study (TIMSS), U.S. 4th graders saw their math scores improve by 23 points between 1995 and 2011. U.S. eighth graders saw similar improvements with scores rising 18 points during the same time period. For each of these grade levels the gains were among the largest made by participating countries. It should be noted the U.S. also made significant gains on the 8th grade TIMSS science assessment and on PIRLS the international 4th grade reading assessment.
More students receiving a diploma
Not only are our students learning more, more students are graduating. Although graduation rates remained relatively flat between 1970 and 2000, between 2000 and 2010 they steadily increased from 67 percent to 75. Just like on the achievement measures black and Hispanic students made even greater gains during this period. In 2000 just 50 percent of black students graduated high school within four years. That percentage has climbed to 62 percent in 2010. The improvement made by Hispanic students was even more impressive by increasing from 50 percent in 2000 to 68 percent in 2010.
More students are also graduating from college. The percent of the population over 25 with a bachelor’s degree increased from 11 percent in 1970 to 30 percent in 2010. During this same time period the percent of black adults with a bachelor’s degree increased from 6 percent 20 percent. For Hispanics, 8 percent of adults held bachelor’s degrees in 1980—the oldest data available—compared to 13.9 percent in 2010.
Despite the common assertion that our schools have flatlined, the facts clearly show our students are performing higher and more students are earning degrees than ever before. Are our schools where we want them to be? No, there is obviously more work that needs to be done. But the facts do show that our public schools are making significant strides and are in the best position to ensure all students obtain the skills they need to lead a successful life. – Jim Hull