Today, I’m going to focus on a positive and mostly overlooked trend in American education. For years, you’ve probably been hearing that our schools are in crisis. And K-12 education in the U.S. certainly has problems. But it has also been improving for much of the past few decades, according to several crucial metrics.
Starting in the late 1990s, the math skills of students in elementary and middle schools began to improve. A few years later, reading skills started improving, too.
Here are the average results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress for fourth graders and eighth graders since 1996:
And here are measures of racial inequality from the math portion of the same test. As you can see, gaps between white students and students of color declined in the 1990s and early 2000s:
As Thomas Kane, a Harvard professor of education and economics, says about the recent educational progress, “It may be the most important social policy success of the last half century that nobody seems to be aware of.”
Accountability and money
There appear to be two main causes.
First, many states began to emphasize school accountability starting in the 1990s. Massachusetts, North Carolina, Texas and other states more rigorously measured student learning and pushed struggling schools to adopt approaches that were working elsewhere. The accountability movement went national in the 2000s, through laws signed by George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
The timing of the test-score increases is consistent with this story, as researchers at the Brookings Institution have noted. As you can see in the charts above, the biggest gains came shortly after states began holding schools more accountable for student learning. In more recent years, the gains leveled off. This pattern suggests that schools made some important changes in response to accountability policies but then struggled to maintain the pace of improvement.
A second major cause of increased learning seems to have been school funding: It rose during the 1990s and early 2000s. States with especially sharp increases included Michigan, Nebraska, New York and Vermont, according to Kenneth Shores of the University of Delaware and Christopher Candelaria of Vanderbilt.
Typically, the funding increases were larger for low-income schools than for high-income schools. That may help explain why racial gaps in reading and math skills declined.
“Exposure to higher levels of public K-12 spending when you’re in school has a pretty large beneficial effect on the adult outcomes of kids,” Kirabo Jackson, an economist at Northwestern University, has said. “Those effects are much more pronounced for children from low-income families.”
Of course, there are caveats to the recent trends in educational progress. The racial gaps, while smaller, are still large. Reading scores did not rise as much as math scores (perhaps because reading is more heavily influenced by students’ lives outside of school, while math is mostly taught at school). High-school test scores did not rise as much as middle-school or elementary-school scores. And some forms of accountability backfired, leading schools to focus more on test-taking than on actual learning.
Yet the overall trend — American children learning more — was enormously positive. Education often changes people’s lives. One study in Texas, for example, found that improvements in previously struggling schools led students there to become more likely to graduate from both high school and college and to earn more at age 25.
Broader research offers a similar message. The pay gap between college graduates and everybody else is near a record high. More educated Americans are more likely to be in stable relationships and to be happy with their lives and less likely to suffer from loneliness, chronic pain and alcohol and drug abuse.
These differences have long existed, but they have widened significantly in recent decades, as the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton documented in their 2020 book “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism.”
That’s why the improvement in American schooling during the 1990s and early 2000s was a cause for celebration, as Kane says. It deserved to be a major news story, even if it wasn’t one.