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Over the past 40 years, the per-student cost has doubled but achievement has remained flat….right?

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You’ve heard it so often you almost believe it.  Here’s Bill Gates saying in the Washington Post:

Over the past four decades, the per-student cost of running our K-12 schools has more than doubled, while our student achievement has remained virtually flat. Meanwhile, other countries have raced ahead. The same pattern holds for higher education. Spending has climbed, but our percentage of college graduates has dropped compared with other countries.

But it’s wrong.  Respected education commentator Richard Rothstein responds factually, first to the assertion that “student achievement has remained virtually flat.”  He says that, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the only test of achievement over time,

American students have improved substantially, in some cases phenomenally. In general, the improvements have been greatest for African-American students, and among these, for the most disadvantaged. The improvements have been greatest for both black and white 4thand 8th graders in math. Improvements have been less great but still substantial for black 4th and 8th graders in reading and for black 12th graders in both math and reading. Improvements have been modest for whites in 12th grade math and at all three grade levels in reading.

Rothstein then provides summary tables showing the improvements.  Diane Ravitch makes the same point in more detail, saying “In mathematics, the gains have been large.”  In reading, she shows how the gains have been “slow, steady, and significant.”

What about Bill Gates’ assertion that, “…the per-student cost of running our K-12 schools has more than doubled?”  Rothstein points out that,

…less than half of this new money has gone to regular education (including compensatory education for disadvantaged children, programs for English-language learners, integration programs like magnet schools, and special schools for dropout recovery and prevention). The biggest single recipient of new money has been special education for children with disabilities. Four decades ago, special education consumed less than 4% of all K-12 spending. It now consumes 21%.

The details are here.  What about “Spending has climbed, but our percentage of college graduates has dropped compared with other countries?”  Rothstein:

In the last four decades, the percentage of college graduates in the United States has nearly doubled. In 1970, 16% of young adults (ages 25 to 29) were college graduates. Today, it is 31%. The improvement has been across the board: the share of African-American young adults who are college graduates has gone from 10% to 19%; for whites it has gone from 17% to 37%.

As Rothstein says, we have a lot to do to improve but it does no good to misrepresent the problem.  American education is not a basket case.  It’s worth reading Rothstein and Ravitch for the whole story.


7 Comments

  1. YinzerThing says:

    Excellent piece! We here in the Pennsylvania grassroots movement for public education are working to spread this message, too. Thank you!
    Jessie Ramey, Ph.D.
    Yinzer Nation + Education = Yinzercation (yinzercation.wordpress.com)

  2. Tim Potts says:

    Do we have any information about achievement gains for children with disabilities over the past 40 years? I’m a school board member (Carlisle, PA) and have advocated for children with disabilities for decades. I see the progress these children have made but it’s all anecdotal. Is there a long-term study available?

  3. Chris Miller says:

    Tell me what are we doing for those kids who do no want to go to college and prefer to be craftsmen. As a retires history teacher of 32 years with a BA from Moravian Colled and an Masters in Education from East Stroudsburg I can tell you that college is overrated.

  4. […] public schools are…falling in the world rankings, etc. (a frequently repeated myth, discussed here and here).  He used another of his speaking opportunities to make the point that the businesses […]

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