It's become received wisdom that US schools have been in decline for years. We sure aren't stacking up very well on international tests. But are we really in such a rut? The answer to that question might surprise most Americans. Our schools have actually made some very big strides. True, we aren't moving fast enough, but we don't do ourselves any favors by ignoring these gains.
Mike Petrilli lays out some of the good news:
In both the “basic skills” of reading and math, and in the social studies subjects of history, civics, and now geography, African-American, Latino, and low-income fourth- and eighth-graders have posted huge gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) since the early 1990s. For instance, between 1990 and 2009, black fourth graders made 35 points of progress on the mathematics NAEP exam; black eighth-graders gained 24 points. The corresponding numbers for Latino children were 28 and 21 points respectively. In reading, black fourth-graders gained 13 points between 1992 and 2009; black eighth graders gained 9 points. In the just-released geography exam, black fourth-grade students gained 28 points between 1994 and 2010; Latino fourth-graders gained 21 points. Similar progress was seen in history and civics.
When you consider that a 10 point gain in NAEP is roughly equal to a grade level, these are numbers to celebrate. As Petrilli notes elsewhere, some US states can boast even larger gains.
As Jack Jennings writes in the Huffington Post, just about every group has made gains since the early '90s. The fact that low-income students, who typically post lower scores, now make up a larger share of the total than they did 20 years ago can make overall performance look stagnant.
So should we rest on our laurels? Of course not. Students in other countries have made faster gains than ours have. Students in places like Finland, South Korea and Shanghai continue to leave ours in the dust.
But we shouldn't ignore our successes either. It would be downright demoralizing to think that 20 years of reform have led us nowhere. It should be uplifting to realize that we can, after all, move the needle. All the more reason, therefore, to redouble our efforts.