Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Celebrating Back To School Success

As 485,000 students return to public school districts across the state, it is a good time to reflect on an important fact: our schools are helping more students achieve at higher levels than ever before in history.

There are three common criticisms of public education: (1) educational outcomes are declining or stagnant at best; (2) public schools are particularly failing to meet the needs of low income and minority students; and (3) taxpayers are “spending more and getting less” from public schools.

In fact, academic achievement and educational attainment has been rising, the achievement gap between whites and minority students has been closing, and school spending as a share of personal income is lower than it was in 1970.

Long Term Reading and Math Scores

The National Assessment of Education Progress released a new long term report card this summer that tracked reading and math performance at ages nine, thirteen and seventeen since the 1970’s. (This study is different from the biennial NAEP test report for reading and math, which report results by individual states at grades four and eight. State NAEP results for 2013 are due to be released this fall.)  The long term report card report found that performance had improved for all students at age nine and thirteen and was essentially unchanged at age 17.

But it also found that performance for each major racial/ethnic group of students – white, black and Hispanic – had improved at all three age levels.  Black and Hispanic students still score lower than whites, but the gap has been narrowed over the past four decades.  The percentage of non-white students more than doubled since the 1970’s.  If not for changes in the racial composition of students tested, performance would be up at all ages.  In other words, there more many more minority students who on average score lower than white students; but the scores of minority students have increased more than majority students. U.S. schools are educating more challenging students to higher levels.

Changes in NAEP reading average scores and score gaps for 9-, 13-, and 17-year-old students, by selected characteristics: various years
CharacteristicsSubgroupsScore changes from 1973Score changes from 2008
Age 9Age 13Age 17Age 9Age 13Age 17
All studentsAll studentsup arrow13up arrow 8arrowarrowup arrow 3arrow
Race/ethnicityWhiteup arrow15up arrow 9up arrow 4arrowarrowarrow
Blackup arrow36up arrow24up arrow30arrowarrowarrow
Hispanicup arrow25up arrow17up arrow21arrowup arrow 7arrow
GenderMaleup arrow17up arrow 9up arrow 4arrowarrowarrow
Femaleup arrow10up arrow 6arrowarrowup arrow 3arrow
Score gapsWhite – BlackNarrowedNarrowedNarrowedarrowarrowarrow
White – HispanicNarrowedNarrowedNarrowedarrowNarrowedarrow
Male – FemaleNarrowedarrowarrowarrowarrowarrow
up arrow Indicates score was higher in 2012
arrow Indicates no significant change in 2012.

Changes in NAEP mathematics average scores and score gaps for 9-, 13-, and 17-year-old students, by selected characteristics: various years
CharacteristicsSubgroupsScore changes from 1973Score changes from 2008
Age 9Age 13Age 17Age 9Age 13Age 17
All studentsAll studentsup arrow25up arrow19arrowarrowup arrow 4arrow
Race/ethnicityWhiteup arrow27up arrow19up arrow 4arrowarrowarrow
Blackup arrow36up arrow36up arrow18arrowarrowarrow
Hispanicup arrow32up arrow32up arrow17arrowarrowarrow
GenderMaleup arrow26up arrow21arrowarrowarrowarrow
Femaleup arrow24up arrow17up arrow 3arrowup arrow 5arrow
Score gapsWhite – BlackNarrowedNarrowedNarrowedarrowarrowarrow
White – HispanicarrowNarrowedNarrowedarrowarrowarrow
Male – FemalearrowarrowNarrowedarrowarrowarrow
up arrow Indicates score was higher in 2012
arrow Indicates no significant change in 2012.

Graduation Rates

The 2013 edition of  "Diplomas Count," an annual study of high school graduates, found U.S. graduation rates have reached a forty-year high, with strong growth over the past decade. “Much of the nation’s improvement since 2000 has been driven by strong gains for historically underserved groups," the report reads. “Graduation rates for Latino students have skyrocketed 16 percentage points over this period, reaching 68 percent for the class of 2010. Rates for black students, now at 62 percent, have risen 13 points.”

These findings are supported by the National Center for Education Statistics in the report  Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 1972-2009This report used a different calculation, but also found improving high school graduation rates since 1972 for all students. This report shows the “achievement gap” between African American and Hispanic students and white students was reduced by more than half for both groups.

Graduates Take Rigorous Classes

Not only are more students completing high school, they are graduating with more and tougher classes. According to the Digest of Education Statistics, the average number of units completed at graduation increased by more than five since 1982 (from 21.6 to 27), and almost all of the increase has been in core academic courses. These courses help prepare students for post secondary education.

Adult Educational Achievement

Improving basic skills, graduating more students, and more rigorous courses completed at graduation results in the highest levels of educational attainment ever achieved in this nation.

The U.S. Census Bureau has a wealth of data on the educational status of Americans at this site, including a number of charts such as the following:

Last fall, the Pew Research Center released the report "Record Shares of Young Adults Have Finished Both High School and College," which focused on educational results since 1970. It found significant improvements in levels of post secondary completion for all major population groups aged 25-29 over the past 40 years.


Americans are clearly getting more from their public school system in terms of high school and post secondary completion, but at what cost?  Certainly, total expenditures have increased, from $40.7 billion in 1969-70 to $559.2 billion in 2010-11. But so has the U.S. economy and personal income to support education.

  • In 1970, total public school expenditures were 4.7% of total U.S. personal income of $864.6 billion.
  • In 2011, school spending was 4.2% of total personal income of $13,191.3 billion.  
  • Americans are spending less of their total income on public schools in 2011 than they were over 40 years ago, but a higher percentage of students complete high school and a much higher percentage complete some level of higher education.  (Source: Digest of Education Statistics, Bureau of Economic Analysis.) 
Note that schools have also significant new responsibilities since 1970, such as special education services and Title IX requirements, which have a major impact on staffing and facility needs.

Kansas leads the national and regional average in educational attainment, while spending below the national average per pupil and at the regional average using the most recent data available.

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