Readers of this newsletter know that we try to avoid the bad news bias. My colleagues and I cover many worrying stories here, but we also want to make sure we cover the encouraging ones. The world is full of both, after all.
Today I will focus on a positive and largely overlooked trend in American education. For years, you’ve probably heard that our schools are in crisis. And K-12 education in the US certainly has problems. But it has also been improving for much of the last few decades, according to several crucial metrics.
Starting in the late 1990s, elementary and high school students’ math skills began to improve. A few years later, reading skills also began to improve.
Here are the average National Assessment of Educational Progress results for fourth- and eighth-graders since 1996:
And here are measures of racial inequality from the math portion of the same test. As you can see, the gaps between white students and students of color narrowed in the 1990s and early 2000s:
Racial gaps in reading skills also narrowed during this period.
As Thomas Kane, Harvard professor of education and economics, says of recent educational progress: “It may be the most important social policy success of the last half century that no one seems to be aware of.”
Responsibility and money
There seem to be two main causes.
First, many states began emphasizing school accountability beginning in the 1990s. Massachusetts, North Carolina, Texas, and other states more rigorously measured student learning and pushed struggling schools to adopt approaches that they 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 increases in test scores is consistent with this story, as researchers at the Brookings Institution have noted. As you can see from the charts above, the biggest gains came soon after states started holding schools more accountable for student learning. In more recent years, earnings have leveled off. This pattern suggests that schools made some important changes in response to accountability policies, but then struggled to keep up the pace of improvement.
A second major cause of the rise in learning appears 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.
Funding increases were generally greater for low-income schools than for high-income schools. That may help explain why racial gaps in reading and math skills narrowed.
“Exposure to higher levels of K-12 government spending when you’re in school has a pretty big beneficial effect on adult child outcomes,” said Kirabo Jackson, an economist at Northwestern University. “Those effects are much more pronounced for children from low-income families.”
Of course, there are caveats about recent trends in educational progress. The racial gaps, although smaller, are still large. Reading scores did not increase as much as math scores (perhaps because reading is more influenced by students’ lives outside of school, while math is mostly taught in school). High school test scores did not increase as much as middle or elementary school scores. And some forms of accountability backfired, leading schools to focus more on taking tests than on actual learning.
However, the general trend—American children learning more—was hugely positive. Education often changes people’s lives. A study in Texas, for example, found that improvements in previously struggling schools led to students being more likely to graduate from high school and college and earn more by age 25.
Further investigation offers a similar message. The pay gap between college graduates and everyone else is near an all-time high. More educated Americans are more likely to be in stable relationships and happy with their lives and less likely to suffer from loneliness, chronic pain, and alcohol and drug abuse.
These differences have been around for a long time, but have widened significantly in recent decades, as 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 education during the 1990s and early 2000s was cause for celebration, as Kane puts it. It deserved to be big news, even if it wasn’t.
By now, I imagine some of you are thinking: But what has happened to these trends during the pandemic? In another newsletter this week, I will try to answer that question.
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The fashion Oscars are back
The first Monday in May means it’s time for the Met Gala. Officially, the event is a black tie fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. Unofficially, the gala is the Super Bowl of fashion, where celebrities try to outdo themselves on the red carpet. (Their efforts are often dwarfed by the presence of Rihanna, who is the costume queen at the event.)
If it seems like the last Met Gala was yesterday, that’s because the 2021 edition took place in September (blame the pandemic). That event unveiled the first part of an exhibition on American fashion at the Costume Institute. This year’s gala, co-hosted by Regina King, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds, opens the second part of the show. The dress code is “gold glamour”.
“Think of the Astors, Vanderbilts, Whitneys, and Edith Wharton books,” writes Vanessa Friedman. Expect a lot of people to show up dripping with gold. — Sanam Yar, a writer for Morning