Better at 9 and 13 but not at 17

Nine- and 13-year-olds are doing better in reading and math since the early 1970s, according to the new Nation’s Report Card analysis of long-term trends by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Seventeen-year-olds are doing about the same.

The racial achievement gap has narrowed since the ’70s, but there’s been little progress from 2004 to 2008. Nine-year-old boys narrowed the reaidng gap with girls.

What counts is what kids know when they finish high school and go into the world, writes Cato’s Andrew Coulson.  The failure to show progress for 17-year-olds represents a “productivity collapse unparalleled in any other sector of the economy.”

At the end of high school, students perform no better today than they did nearly 40 years ago, and yet we spend more than twice as much per pupil in real, inflation-adjusted terms.

Students are taking more challenging math courses than they did a generation ago. You’d think that would pay off in math scores, but it hasn’t yet made a difference at the high school level.

Update: The lowest-achieving students have improved more than the highest achievers in the last four years, narrowing the gap, points out USA Today.

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  1. Similar to warnings of a “Nation at risk” twenty-six years ago, Andrew Coulson makes dire statements about “productivity collapse.” While there is certainly nothing to praise about the lack of progress in reading skills, I wonder how serious of a “collapse” this is, and whether the nation is truly “at risk.” Knowing CATO, I would assume Coulson’s position is all about funding and cost benefit analysis, though I would like much more detail on his “inflation adjusted terms.”

    Another question to ask is whether this “productivity collapse” has led to a similar or comparable productivity collapse in the marketplace. That is generally an important marker, as well as an interest in CATO on whether the investment of public education is worth it. I’m not so sure the reading of 17-year-olds can be correlated, or parsed out, in that way.

  2. Students are not taking more challenging math courses; they are taking courses which are described as more challenging. A far-too-high percentage of them have not learned the basics of arithmetic, fractions, decimals etc. to mastery; they can’t master algebra without that background, let alone do real advanced math. Just callling a class algebra, or trig doesn’t make it so.

    The same goes for reading; they have never mastered phonics and never learned the subject knowledge necessary for real understanding. They are not sufficiently exposed to well-written prose, either nonfiction or classic works of fiction. Without that, they cannot even recognize good writing and they have never been taught to write correct English. Many years and many red pencils are required.

    It takes many years to achieve a satisfactory level of education, and most of the first 6-8 is wasted. By junior high, it is very hard to make up for all of the past omissions and gaps.

  3. The brightest students are indeed taking more advanced math classes than in the past, especially when it comes to girls.

    My mom graduated in 1971 from a high school in an affluent neighborhood in a college town. At the time, the school did not allow its students to enroll in both honors English and honors math. The teachers and guidance counselors heavily discouraged girls from taking honors math, although my mom had a friend who did (she subsequently graduated from MIT). The honors math track topped out at Trigonometry, while the regular college prep track topped out at Algebra II.

    That same school today offers the rigorous International Baccalaureate diploma program, including Calculus.

    I graduated high school in 1995 and the highest math course offered was Calculus. Today, many of the top students take AP Calculus in 11th grade and Post-AP Math in 12th.

  4. To Michael Mazenko,

    How serious of a collapse is it? Total k-12 expenditures in this country were about $630 billion two years ago (see Table 25, Digest of Ed Statistics 2008). The efficiency of our education system is less than half what it was in 1971 (i.e., we spend more than twice as much to get the same results — see Table 181, same source).

    So if we’d managed to ensure that education productivity just stagnated, we’d be saving over $300 billion EVERY YEAR. If we’d actually seen productivity improvements in education such as we’ve seen in other fields, we’d be saving at least that much money and enjoying higher student achievement at the same time.

    My guess is that most people would consider saving $3 trillion per decade and more fully realizing children’s intellectual potential are both very important.

  5. I’ll grant Crimson Wife’s point about the very top students, but the push for 8th-grade algebra has created a lot of fake algebra classes for kids who haven’t mastered the basics they need to be successful in algebra. Also, even in the leafy suburbs, not all schools offer the same material in identically-described classes. That’s been true for decades in some suburban county-wide systems.

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    michael mazenko,

    Coulson’s “collapse in productivity” refers to the schools, not the students. If the schools spend twice as much to get the same result, you could say their productivity is only half what it used to be. The return per dollar spent is only half what it used to be.

    In any country that is getting richer, it is inevitable that an industry that doesn’t automate is going to require more money to do the same thing. Pay will generally be going up and the less productive industry will have to raise pay in order to hire people who otherwise would go to the more productive industry. William Baumol analyzed this about 30 years ago and the fact is sometimes referred to as “Baumol’s cost disease” or “Baumol’s disease.”

    K-12 very deliberately doesn’t automate. If anything, the trend has been to retain the structure of “a teacher in a room with students” and to lower class size. So cost is inevitably going to go up.

  7. Roger Sweeny says:

    Andrew Coulson beat me to an explanation.

    But there is a very important issue hiding here. It is inevitable that an industry that doesn’t automate is going to cost more to do the same thing. The question that has to be asked is HOW education can automate. With the present model, it simply cannot.

    Every once in a while, someone says something like, “The very best teachers should be recorded and the recording should then be shown to millions of students, with some of the local teachers retained for “discussion sections” or problem sections.” This would indeed automate things.

    However, the conventional wisdom in the ed biz has gone in the opposite direction. Teachers should be less the “sage on the stage” and more “the guide on the side.” The cynical would point out that this means more paying customers for ed. schools and more dues-paying members for teachers’ unions. The cynic would, of course, be right.

    But perhaps it IS impossible to seriously automate education.

  8. I suspect that the averages hide much of what is really happening. My children attend an excellent public high school and I have no doubt that they are receiving an education that is significantly better than the one I received 35 years ago in an elite high school of my day.

    On the other hand, I suspect that many inner-city children are not receiving much of an education at all.

    I would like to see more details on the numbers that went into the averages before drawing too many conclusions.

  9. deirdremundy says:

    It might be possible to automate the “guide on the side” method by giving each child 1 hour of great tutoring a day via internet. Then count the other 5 hours as a loss, since most elementary kids spend most of their day 9when not working in small groups with a teacher) screwing around, day dreaming, and ignoring stuff.

    Unfortunately, I think true automation/streamlining is impossible as long as schools are expected to double as taxpayer supported daycares.

  10. Margo/Mom says:

    Read Christensen (Disrupting Education) on the likelihood of automating education. He is fairly persuasive that we will be seeing significant competition from automation (computerization) within the next five years or so. Beware–he is not an educator, but rather someone who has studied innovation extensively.

    But, his thesis, illustrated with business examples, is that innovation tends to take place off to the side, developing products for previously unserved markets. In education, even though we regard public education as universal, we do in fact have some unserved markets. The advantage of developing products for the unserved is that an inferior product (to that already in use) in stages of production can have an attraction. I see this currently in some of the charter schools that have taken on drop-out recovery. They are heavily reliant on online course-work, of the most deadly dull and simplistic kind. But they are drawing in kids that were poorly/unserved in the existing system. Some are bright kids who can whiz through the computerized work-books. Most have already sat through course-work that they didn’t pass for various reasons. Many have a variety of distractions in the form of poor or erratic attendance, need for employment, family responsibilities, etc. They are not looking for engagement as much as getting through the credential. These online courses, crude though they may be, are highly personalized. If you are only there on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the lessons wait for you. If waiting for the rest of the class to grasp something that understood intuitively is putting you to sleep, you can demonstrate mastery and move on.

    There are still lots of barriers to widespread use. Most are still pretty clunky–read and answer the questions. The technology exists to make them as interesting as the Sims–but nobody has matched up the capital to the effort–yet. Then too is the issue that mo4 brings up. Most coursework is far from standardized. This puts a damper on any efforts to alter or individualize pacing that is primarily based on the “Carnegie Unit,” or “seat time.” With clarity and agreement on exactly what level of mastery constitutes completion of Algebra I (or any of the precursers), technology can be used to move students at their own pace. Such efforts could also (gasp) take the place of end of year exams for accountability purposes. If reliable standards and ongoing formative assessment were administered as the student reached readiness to demonstrate mastery, we would have ongoing data at any point in time to indicate levels of progress, effectiveness of any selected program/curriculum, cost-effectiveness.

    Certainly the role of the teacher would change. Face to face contact might include more of a guidance role, more emphasis on socialization and individualization. Whole new avenues might include development and evaluation of lessons.

    Well–it could happen.

  11. Andrew and Roger,

    I concede the expanse of spending, and I am a proponent of reform that makes it more efficient, such as plans in New Hampshire for earlier graduation with a greater focus on associates degrees, technical education, and dual credit – reforms that could save $60 billion a years nationwide. However, I wonder about a strict dollar-for-dollar comparison in terms of establishing a clear “collapse” of “productivity.” As the Sandia report noted in its effective refutation of the surface level assumptions about “A Nation at Risk,” there can be overall declines in productivity while there are impressive gains in sub-groups leading to the “Simpson Paradox.”

    Thus, I agree with you in terms of saving money and maximizing intellectual potential. However, I would also note that schools are doing far more to educate a larger population to a greater degree (and that degree is beyond NAEP scores scope) than ever before, and much of the investment may be coming in areas that aren’t measured by a standardized test. That, Roger, is to what I refer by the unclear correlation to the market. Andrew was clearly focusing on the productivity of the education system, while I sought some sort of causation.

    Simply looking at expense as related to reading/math scores is more narrow than many parents and taxpayers are looking – a point well-noted by deirdremundy’s comment. Currently, 3/4 of American parents are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” by their children’s school and 80% of Americans are satisfied with their own education. So, there are clearly variables outside the expense as correlated to NAEP scores.

  12. Paul,

    As I mentioned in my initial statement on Cato’s website, the stagnation in overall performance at the end of high school masks a 3 to 5 percent gain in the achievement of black 17-year-olds over the past 40 years. The scores of whites, who still make up the majority of students, have moved by less than one percent. Inner-city schools are clearly not to blame for the stagnation of white students.

    I’ve written previously about the fact that Americans understand as a nation that our academic performance at the end of high school is very poor compared to other rich nations, while many if not most Americans simultaneously think that their _own_ public schools are adequate or good. Both of these beliefs cannot be true, and we have empirical evidence for the former. If schools sent home report cards that placed student performance in an _international_ context, there would be a lot of unhappy campers in suburbia.

  13. The education inflation rate does seem higher than inflation in the rest of the economy. Well maybe that’s not the case when you compare it to medical care 🙂 Does anyone know how the increase in K-12 spending compares with that at the university level?

  14. As I argued extensively in a previous discussion, comparisons of “academic performance” at the end of high school between the US and “other rich nations” is quite deceptive without considering all the variables not included in the comparison. Notably, the comparison is standardized test performance that has no direct correlation to performance in the marketplace. The “unhappy campers” in suburbia would need some insight and experience with foreign systems and cultures before drawing dire conclusions about the quality and benefit of their children’s education.

    Additionally, in terms of cost, there are many variables leading to the increased spending that are not being considered by many critics of the spending who focus only on correlation to academic gains. The expansion of spending for special education services has produced significant gains for those populations and their communities. The staggering rise in autism rates alone, and the ability of schools to not only accommodate, but to assist high-functioning autistic students into assimilating into society and the workforce, is going to disproportionately affect school expenses. And the money spent will not show gains in NAEP assessments. School security is another area of expense that has developed and expanded in ways that were not necessary to factor into budgets forty years ago – pre-Columbine.

    Clearly, a focus on simple dollar amounts and NAEP statistics takes a myopic view of public education spending.

  15. Morgan Dubiel says:

    michael mazenko’s attempts to obfuscate the truth about the destructive nature of government education are myopic. Given the fact that in a system like Chicago’s only 50% of HS freshmen graduate. That means the productivity losses aren’t just ephemeral accounting gimmicks, but proof the failure of government schools to deliver as promised is wasting human potential and causing real misery. That the head of such a failed system now sits atop the Federal Education clique is truly shocking.

    To ignore that is more than cynical, it is criminal.

    Note Crimnson Wife’s comments on school. 38 years ago her mother graduated from a school where you could have switched mother, daughter or granddaughter and each would adjust almost instantaneously without any difficulty despite the fact that four decades have passed since then. Teaching methods have remained trapped in the late 19th century with no incentive to change.

    My children will complete Calculus at age 14 or 15 and move on to real physics, chemistry and biology in that order. Why, because we refuse to teach the same way they did 100 years ago and still do today. Much better methods exist to deliver educational excellence than are practiced anywhere in U.S. government schools.

    Morningside Academy in Seattle can teach in one year what an average government school teaches in two. That is literally double the productivity. Can you imagine another industry that could resist a competitor that is 100% better at delivering the same product? Only a tax base monopoly keeps government schools in business. Remove that with vouchers and parents would flee in droves to better, more student centered schools that teach more, faster.

    Customer satisfaction is not the goal of government education – satisfying the needs of teachers, principals and administrators is.

  16. Wow. A lot of complicated comments. Here’s the simplified version of what I think is up:

    I’m in my mid-40’s. I received an excellent public school education, which included courses such as calculus and AP literature/writing in high school. I was well-prepared to attend an excellent 4-year university, where I kept up in graduate-level classes as a sophomore. I teach 4th grade now.

    My 4th graders are expected to grasp concepts in math, language arts, and science that I wasn’t exposed to until high school. We pile on homework starting in kindergarten. I saw homework for the first time in 7th grade. We are pushing the average student too hard, too fast, and studies (like this one) show that the learning doesn’t hold.

    We’re burning our kids out. By the time they reach middle school, they’re done. Oh, and they’ve also had no time to PLAY, which teaches them problem solving skills. Because they’ve been too busy doing homework. We need to slow down elementary school and step it up in middle and high school.

    Simple. At least I wish it was.

  17. Has anyone pointed out the repeated issue with using the data from the end of high school NAEP? It’s a zero stakes test given to a random sample of students who are pulled out of their classes sometime near the end of their senior year and asked to take a test that has absolutely no meaning to them?

    As this article puts forth:

    “In 2002 nearly half of the 17-year-olds tapped to take the national NAEP exam didn’t bother to show up. Students who did show up left more essay questions than multiple-choice questions blank, an indication that they weren’t going to be bothered to venture an answer if it required effort.”

    I’m not saying things are better or worse, but shouldn’t we make sure we have an understanding of what’s happening with the tool used to measure our progress before we put such total stock in it?

  18. Morgan,

    Criminal? I guess the effective use of hyperbole is not lost on you. Nor is the use of gross generalizations used to criticize an incredibly complex system. Using the term “government schools” to criticize the troubles of CPS in Chicago ignores two-thirds of the issue. New Trier, Stevenson, Highland Park are “government schools” just up the road, and they are incredibly successful producing results to rival any school nationwide, or even worldwide. Having lived and taught in the city of Chicago, as well as having lived and taught abroad in Taiwan, I’d argue that parents couldn’t hope for a better environment than these schools. These are “government schools,” so clearly that moniker is not the key to the problem.

    That is some interesting data about Morningside, but I’d like to see some real data on those results. Morningside may be a great place, though as a parent I think I’d put my faith in the Bellevue school district and Bellevue International high school. So would Bill Gates.

  19. Right.

    1971 pre-dates the IDEA. I can’t tell you how many million $ kids come through my classroom. Children with severe learning and physical disabilities don’t test well.

    1971 pre-dates IT departments.

    1971 pre-dates maternity leaves for teachers and other benefits.

    In most European nations, only the top 1/3rd of the students make it to 12th or 13th grade.

    I suspect the results vary wildly depending on your agenda and where you look. My students not only max out of Calc, but many are taking higher maths at the local ivy university. Our AP scores average well over a 4 in most subject areas (which is probably as objective a measure as you can find). I have or have had students attend most of the highly selective schools in the country. We’re just a public school district. But, down the road, the urban school district is unaccredited and failing miserably. Our state graduation rate is about 50% — we’re largely extremely rural — but my building’s rate was 99% last year.

    We can certainly do much better — I certainly have a ways to go before I become the truly excellent teacher I’d like to be. But schools have experienced incredibly expensive new mandates in the last 37 years that don’t seem to be accounted for here.

  20. Notably, the comparison is standardized test performance that has no direct correlation to performance in the marketplace.

    Actually it does. See for example this bit of economic research: International School Test Sources and Economic Growth by Appleton, Atherton and Bleaney.
    Economists are now debating the size of the correlation. The abstract of the paper above is:

    We expand Hanushek and Kimko’s (2000) analysis of the relationship between schooling quality, as measured by scores in international tests, and growth. We take account of another fifteen years of growth and approximately twice as many test score results. We treat the data
    first as a panel, relating growth only to test scores at earlier dates, and then as a cross-section. In both cases we find the effect of schooling quality on growth to be statistically significant
    but substantially smaller than that reported by Hanushek and Kimko (2000) and Hanushek and Woessmann (2007).

    The paper I linked includes a summary of past research into this.
    Of course correlation is not causation, there are many other factors that can cause a country to be rich even if its education system is shoddy, and on the other hand, to be poor even if it’s got a great education system. To quote P.J. O’Rourke:
    “No part of the earth … is dumber than Beverly Hills , and the residents are wading in gravy. In Russia, meanwhile, where chess is a spectator sport, they’re boiling stones for soup.”
    But there is a correlation between international standardised test scores and economic growth.

  21. Actually, the US educational system is probably the only one in the modern world where students actually do worse the longer they are in it. I graduated in 1981, 5 months after Reagan assumed office, and before the US Dept. of Education (started by that numbnuts Jimmy Carter) could brainwash me with their babbling bulls**t.

    A student who doesn’t have a solid mastery of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, percentages, and fractions is going to have a miserable time in Algebra I (or any other advanced math or science course). Wanna take chemistry, you better know how to do those six things I just mentioned, want to succeed in algebra, better know those six things.

    Students have such inflated egos through self-esteem nonsense that they get stomped on when they actually find out how bad their reading/writing/math skills actually are (In my day, we didn’t have minimum fail grades of 50% for turning in no work), you didn’t turn in the work, you got a big fat zero for that assignment, didn’t show up for a test or quiz without a doctor’s note, you got a zero.

    The penalty for failure in my day was either a lower grade in a course or outright failure. If you failed a course required for graduation, you either repeated it next year, or you were in summer school making it up (with you or your parents paying for it) while all of your friends were out enjoying summer vacation.


  22. Roger Sweeny says:


    Coulson’s figures are already inflation-adjusted. I’m not sure if the price increase is even bigger in medicine. At least some of the increase in medical costs comes from increasing quality: better ways of treating things or treatments that didn’t exist forty years ago (how much more would you be willing to pay to be treated by a modern doctor rather than one forty years ago?).

  23. Richard Aubrey says:

    Lowest scoring kids making the biggest improvements.
    NCLB, anybody?
    If it weren’t Bush’s idea, it would probably be acknowledged.

  24. Morgan Dubiel says:


    I wasn’t using hyperbole. Those City kids, not connected enough to get into magnet schools, not getting an education end up our poor and criminal element. Those schools matter less than the parents of those children attending the “top schools”. I suppose you favor vouchers because we cannot have both the best system and one that is insulated from market competition.

    We see little innovation in government schools because there needn’t be any. Their funding is captive and the majority of it doesn’t even come from the parents of children who attend those schools. The school boards are ineffective and the system is utterly biased in favor of teachers, administrators and vendors.

    Free the funding and the students, end the need for teaching certificates (doesn’t it seem absurd that I cannot teach my trade even though I have almost 20 years in it without a teaching certificate?). The system is not complex, it is simplified. One size fits all doesn’t work with socks, why would it work with human beings?

    All the testing and white paper chatter is wasted energy. Prove we have the best system by letting it compete openly and without constraint in the free market. That was the original point of the article. Watch the wasted human potential come to fruition as children are allowed to learn in a customized fashion tailored to their individual needs. Of course, it would mean that the teachers, administrators and vendors would take the risk of losing profitable positions and contracts – but they’re doing it for the children so they won’t mind. If you’re not willing to let go, then you’re part of the problem.

    Here’s the info from Morningside’s site:

    4 weeks of attendance guarantees 80% of a year of growth in the skill of greatest deficit or your money back!*

    *Proportional refunds based on less growth. All students must attend a testing date scheduled below to qualify. Ask for details.

    Contact them directly. I am certain they must have a lot of data backing up their position to make an open market offer like that.

  25. Morgan,

    Like Jay Mathews, I believe “the best education for the best is the best education for all,” though I also believe a one-size fits all system is problematic, and Charles Murray has a point when he argues, “too many people are going to college” and America has an unrealistic emphasis on bachelors degrees.

    In terms of open enrollment or vouchers or charters or choice, I support whatever works best to help all kids achieve their potential. However, having been educated in and teaching at both public and private schools, as well as teaching abroad, I don’t see any of those choices as a panacea, noting some parents use their “choice” poorly (meaning they simply enroll in a school close-by and it might be an ineffective charter that is closed two years later), and acknowledging that a private sector system which can avoid teaching whatever students it doesn’t want isn’t the answer to problems in an urban school system. Your pejorative use of, and generalization, regarding “government schools” is the aspect of your position which render your argument irrational. Clearly, as you inadvertently point out, it has less to do with who runs the school and more to do with socio-economic factors.

    In terms of Morningside, if what they do leads to student achievement which translates all the way through higher education and success in the marketplace, then more power to them. However, Sylvan Learning Center makes similar claims that may impact a score on state tests, but don’t necessarily translate into any success beyond those tests.