The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Do you think our schools are worse than ever? You’re wrong.

Pandemic was bad, but last half century shows steady improvement, particularly in math

A teacher speaks on the first day of class at Eleanor Roosevelt High School on Aug. 19 in Greenbelt, Md. (Michael A. McCoy for The Washington Post)

Pessimism about American public schools runs deep, particularly with the latest federal sampling tests showing a sharp drop in achievement among 9-year-olds because of the pandemic.

That does not mean, however, that readers are right when they tell me U.S. education has been getting worse for decades. Some people my age say that because we have warm, but only vague, memories of our days in school. The truth is that until covid-19 hit, our schools had been steadily improving for nearly a half century.

University of Buckingham professor M. Danish Shakeel and Harvard University professor Paul E. Peterson have just published their study of U.S. reading and math scores showing significant gains between 1971 and 2017. Math scores grew by nearly four years’ worth of learning and reading scores by nearly one year’s worth of learning during that period.

The two scholars, writing in the journal Education Next based on their recent 87-page article in Educational Psychology Review, also found Black, Hispanic and Asian students improved faster than their White classmates in elementary, middle and high school.

Some reports on American schools have left a different impression. Shakeel and Peterson cite books such as 1994’s “The Decline of Intelligence in America” by Seymour Itzkoff and 2008’s “The Dumbest Generation” by Mark Bauerlein. Those authors argued that American youth were failing to develop basic knowledge and skills because of electronic devices and other bad influences. Bauerlein told me the big problem is the lack of much improvement in high school, which cannot counteract the hours teens pile up on screens in leisure time.

Student test scores plunged during the pandemic

Shakeel and Peterson suggest the rise of achievement during the half century they studied came from improved living standards as well as better schooling. While that was going on, research was revising our understanding of changes in how smart we are.

It was once thought, the two scholars said, that intelligence as measured by IQ tests was “a genetically determined constant that shifted only over the course of eons.” But in the mid-1980s, New Zealand political scientist James Flynn found IQ scores were increasing by three points per decade. Shakeel and Peterson said: “Though Flynn’s work was initially dismissed as an over-interpretation of limited information, his finding was replicated by many others.”

That growth in average intelligence was accompanied by a narrowing of achievement gaps between ethnic groups and income groups in the United States, they said. Over the half century studied, the gap between Black and White students in both reading and math was cut in half. The gains for Black children were largest in elementary school, persisted in middle school and occurred in diminished form through high school.

“It could be due to educationally beneficial changes in family income, parental education and family size within the Black community,” Shakeel and Peterson said. “Other factors may also be in play, such as school desegregation, civil rights laws, early interventions like Head Start and other preschool programs, and compensatory education for low-income students.”

The average performance differences between fourth- and eighth-grade students on the same test are roughly one standard deviation, a common term in statistical analysis. The scholars found elementary school reading scores for White students grew by 9 percent of a standard deviation each decade, compared with growth of 28 percent per decade for Asian students, 19 percent for Black students and 13 percent for Hispanic students.

The scholars said, “Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds also are progressing more quickly than their more advantaged peers in elementary and middle school.”

They said, “Our data consist of more than 7 million student test scores on 160 intertemporally linked math and reading tests administered to nationally representative samples of U.S. student cohorts born between 1954 and 2007.”

The term “intertemporally linked” means the tests were designed to be comparable over time by repeating some of the same questions in different decades, and other techniques. The tests included the U.S. government’s long-term check on school achievement, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and other exams that compare educational results in different countries.

How are America’s public schools really doing?

The scholars suggested that math scores improved more than reading during the half century they studied because of different rates of change in different kinds of intelligence. An analysis of 271 studies of IQ published by Austrian researchers Jakob Pietschnig and Martin Voracek in 2015 found that during the previous century, fluid reasoning, which involves math, grew more than crystallized knowledge, which involves reading. Better nutrition and less exposure to contagious diseases among mothers and babies the last 100 years may have given fluid reasoning a boost.

There are other possible connections between the condition of our planet and how we did in fourth grade. The learning loss during the pandemic, for instance, may be linked to factors that caused a world slowdown in intellectual growth during World War II, Shakeel and Peterson said. That huge conflict, they said, brought “both school closures and worldwide disruptions of economic and social progress.”

Overall, the last half century has been mostly good for schools, even if we’re not sure why. Shakeel, Peterson and the many other researchers on whom we depend must wait now to see how quickly we recover from the educational ravages of the coronavirus.

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