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Why Has US Education Performance Flatlined?

If you open the 2012 Digest of Educational Statistics and look at table 8, you will see, from the 1940s to the 1970s, that the  proportion of the American population getting a high school education and college education grew steadily, at a very healthy rate.  Then in the 1970s, the growth rates flattened out.  Then, if you go to the NAEP web site and look at the data for long-term NAEP, you will see data showing that the performance of our 17 year olds has been flat since the data were first collected.  This flatline of performance is corroborated for the period since 2000 by the whole data series for the PISA survey of U.S.15 year olds.

This might make you wonder whether the United States hit some natural limit of education system performance in the 1970s.  Did we reach the upper bound of what mass education systems can do forty or fifty years ago?  The PISA data show conclusively that that is not true.  One nation after another has exceeded our performance since the PISA data have been collected.  It is, of course, possible that we had reached the upper limit of what our mass education system could accomplish.  But I am getting ahead of my story.

It turns out that we did not flatline because we were unwilling to spend enough money on our schools.  The PISA data show that we are among the biggest spenders in the world on our schools, per student.  So, one obvious question is what we spent the money on if we failed to get very much for it.  I know of no definitive study of the answer to this question, but the people I know who follow these things seem to think we spent it mainly on reducing class size and on special education.  The top performing countries did neither of these things.  There is no evidence that, except for very young students, reducing class size contributes much to improved student performance.  And there is plenty of evidence that labeling students as special education students substantially reduces expectations for those students, thereby condemning them to lower academic performance than they might have achieved if they had not been so labeled.  Finland found a much more effective way to help the students we call "special education" students.  It is entirely possible that one contributing factor might have been that, back in the 1970s, we poured a great deal of money into very low yield investments, money we continue to spend year after year. 

I am certainly not the first observer to notice the flatlining of American education performance since the 70s.  Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz, authors of The Race Between Education and Technology, built a whole--very good--book around that observation.  In their book, they speculate that some of the very features of the American education system that accounted for the steady and steep rise in performance of that system to the 70s might have contributed the flatlining thereafter.  A prominent example is our choice to decentralize education decision-making down to the school district level, which they point out, made it possible for more progressive districts to leap ahead for decades on end and set a fairly torrid pace for education improvement for decades.  But, more recently, in a nation needing much higher levels of student performance, obtainable only with much more sophisticated education planning and management, it may be that nations or states with more centralized and professional decision-making capacities may do a better job.  I think that there is a very good case to be made along these lines and that Goldin and Katz did not make that case forcefully enough.  See my essay on education governance for an argument that the way we govern our education system is the single biggest reason for the flatlining of system performance and the single biggest impediment we face as we try to improve the performance of the system.

But there are other possible causes of the flatlining.  In 1965, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, establishing the modern federal role in education.  A few years later, when the Act failed to produce any measured change in student performance, researchers from the RAND Corporation found that no programs had been implemented with the money.  After that, big bureaucracies were built in our large urban school districts to administer a host of spreading categorical programs.  These bureaucracies not only cost a lot of money, but they made it almost impossible to figure out who was really responsible within the system for addressing the challenges facing disadvantaged students.  At the same time as these bureaucracies were being built, these federal funds were being used in part to flood our urban schools with teachers' aides.

While the United States was flooding its schools with more cheap teachers and inexpensive teachers' aides and the downtown offices with more administrators, the countries that are now at the top of the world's league tables were using their funds to hire not more teachers, aides and administrators, but more highly qualified professionals.  We went for quantity and they went for quality.  What a difference.  They got lower teacher turnover and better student performance.  We got higher teacher turnover and lower student performance.

Then resentment set in among the legislative class.  All that money voted over the years and nothing to show for it.  Democrats and Republicans alike had had enough.  It was time, they thought, to hold the education professionals accountable, time to put teachers' jobs at risk when the kids were not learning.  Time to open up the public schools to some serious competition.  Anger and frustration at the education professionals became prime movers in the making of bipartisan education policy.

From my perch, it looks as though the main effect of the policies born of anger and frustration has not been to boost student achievement but to make it even more difficult to attract highly capable young people into teaching, making it even more difficult to raise student achievement, making it ever more likely that the flatlining will continue.

We don't have to choose among these possible explanations for the decades-long flat performance of our education system.  They are all plausible.  If I were still, as I once was, in charge of the federal government's program of support for education policy research, I would do everything I could to focus the attention of some of our best researchers on trying to understand the factors that caused this flat performance, because I think it unlikely we will fix it unless we better understand what caused it.

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