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You’ve heard how US schools aren’t getting any better but, really….they are.

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Prof. Michael Marder of the University of Texas at Austin shows in a simple way (but with a lot of behind-the-scenes work) how American education has been steadily improving.  The chart below shows the state-by-state improvement in 8th grade math scores.  New Hampshire (blue, 8 points between 2003 and 2009) and Massachusetts (green, 21 points between 2000 and 2009) improvements are highlighted.  Click on the graph for a little video explaining what you are seeing.


Front page for Marder movie on school improvement over time

But, even more impressive, here is the live version of the chart.  You can manipulate it in any way you want in order to review a variety of types of state-by-state education data over the period from 2000 to 2009.

Updated 5/27/12, 9:40am to make the degree of improvement clearer.


  1. Scott Marion says:

    The data visualization is very impressive, but if you look at the values on the x and y axes, they appear quite compressed in terms of the NAEP scale. This has the effect of making the gains look more impressive than many would argue they really are.

    • Bill Duncan says:

      Yes, I cropped the graphic to make NH and MA more visible but the unintended side effect was probably to further exaggerate the impact. On the other hand, if you go to the live version, you can see a line graph that gives another perspective. The goal is simplicity but if you get further into the detail, like how much change is a lot of change when you’re talking about that many millions of kids or how much change there is in the various disaggregations, there’s a lot more story to tell.

      But I’ll tune the post up some when I get a chance. In the end, would you say that a 21 point improvement in MA from 2000 to 2009 is a lot or a little? Or an 8 point improvement in NH from 2003 to 2009, from a relatively high starting point but with easier demographics? Or an 18 point increase in a low ranking state like California?

      I’d also say that debating how much improvement is enough is a lot better and more realistic than the current public perception that the schools have not improved so let’s consider charterization.

      • Scott Marion says:

        I think MA has made impressive gains on NAEP that have not been replicated by enough other entities. I don’t think a 1 point/year improvement in NH is worth patting ourselves on the back over. To be fair, NH has made much greater gains on NECAP, which is a test that aligns much better with what is supposed to be learned than NAEP, but other indicators like college remediation rates and SAT/ACT scores have remained stubbornly depressing. The remediation figures are evidence that while we educate some kids quite well, we leave far too many behind (in spite of NCLB!). In fact, the US has the largest or one of the largest achievement gaps between poor and non-poor kids of any western industrialized country. This is clearly not just an education issue, but a much more significant commentary on our lack of a real social safety net.
        All that said, we can pat ourselves on the back for making some progress, but we need to look up and see that we have much further to go if we want our high school and college graduates to be internationally competitive in fields that will really make a difference in the future. Even taking the NAEP results that you cite show that we have a long way to go. I did some quick analyses this morning using the terrific NAEP data analysis tool ( using just 8th grade math as an example. Nationally, in 1990, we started with only 15% of students scoring proficient or above and now 21 years later (2011 was the last year of results available for this tool), we see 35% of 8th graders scoring proficient and advance, or an increase of less than 1%/year. Given than 65% are not yet proficient, and there is some early evidence will align with what folks are calling “college and career ready,” I’d say, yes we’ve made some progress, but we have a really long way to go. Trust me, I am not faulting the school systems alone for this slow rate of progress, because nations that have really been successful at improving educational performance have approached the problem much more comprehensively and systematically than we have here (e.g., affordable prenatal care, high quality pre-school for all, an equitable health care system).
        I will send you the NAEP results I produced in a separate email. Just some thoughts toward the end of a long, rainy weekend….

        • Bill Duncan says:

          Thanks for all this. It’s very important.

          Uri Treisman points out (in a post I’m working on) that we should all be trying to learn from Massachusetts’ impressive results rather than Finland’s. My own point in all this is not to make the case that MA or NH or the U.S. are progressing as we should or to pat us on the back. I am illustrating that many public schools, including (highly unionized systems like that of) Massachusetts, are able to make educational progress. So it issue isn’t about bad unions or bad teachers or the need for punitive evaluations or competitive alternatives like charters and vouchers. Those are distractions. It’s really about getting down to business and doing what we clearly do know how to do.

          And we should post your NAEP analysis.

          • Scott Marion says:

            I agree that the focus on unions is a distraction, although I’d like to see the unions focus more on improving the profession than they do.

            Sent from my iPhone

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