In the New York Times newsletter, David Leonhardt works against bad-news bias and covers a positive and mostly overlooked trend in American education: the educational progress of the 1990s and early 2000s. Excerpts of the piece appear below:
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. Racial gaps in reading skills also shrunk during this period.
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.”
There appear to be two main causes: Accountability and Money.
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. 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. 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.