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We often hear that it is important for us to know and learn from our past. Taking that idea, we bring you highlights from an encouraging article that looks back 20-30 years to identify why U.S. schools made so much progress back then. Perhaps our reflection can help us identify some best practices and hope as we prepare for the analysis, reporting, and explanation for test results we will soon receive.

Positive trends often overlooked

  • K-12 education has been improving for much of the past few decades.
  • Reading and math skills improved for students, since the late 90s.
  • Racial inequality in reading and math portion indicated closing gaps between white and colored students in the 1990s and early 2000s:

Main causes for improvement

  • Accountability
    • In the 1990s, many states began to emphasize school accountability. 
    • Massachusetts, North Carolina, Texas and other states more rigorously measured student learning and pushed struggling schools to adopt others’ best practices.
    • The accountability movement went national in the 2000s.
    • Biggest gains came shortly after states began holding schools more accountable for student learning, then they leveled off.
    • Pattern suggests that schools made some important changes in response to accountability policies but then struggled to maintain the pace of improvement.
    • Some forms of accountability backfired, leading schools to focus more on test-taking than on actual learning.
  • Money
    • School funding 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 larger for low-income schools, racial gaps in reading and math skills declined (but are still large).

Better lives

  • Overall historical trend of American children learning more was enormously positive, changing lives for the better.
  • Students more likely to graduate from both high school and college and to earn more at age 25.
  • 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.
  • Improvement in American schooling during the 1990s and early 2000s was a cause for celebration!

We look forward to additional insights into the pandemic’s impact on these trends with a hope that we can return to a positive educational trend that includes ample and equitably allocated resources and a fair and sensible accountability system.


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