There Is Probably No “Crisis” In American Education

Here is a chart of educational attainment in the United States since 1940:


When you look at that chart, do you see a crisis?

No? Me neither.

How about in these charts of reading and math achievement on the NAEP for 17-year-olds, broken down by race?reading17


Still hard to see a crisis, at least to my eyes.

Certainly, it’s fair to say that American education has many problems related to effectiveness, efficiency, and equity.

And it’s probably reasonable to say that our country and the world face a number of bona fide crises – war, climate change, poverty, or criminal justice, for example – each  with some relationship to education, however complex or indirect.

But next time you hear someone claim – or are yourself tempted to claim – that American education is in a state of “crisis” or is being “destroyed” by education reform, remember these charts. Then ask yourself whether those terms are being used productively or whether they are being defined down in a way that obscures as much as illuminates.

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  1. js
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 4:36 PM | Permalink

    You need a legend on your first chart

    • Mike Barrett
      Posted July 1, 2014 at 1:14 PM | Permalink

      No he doesn’t. Chart explained in the chart.

  2. Posted June 9, 2014 at 6:16 PM | Permalink

    The widespread belief that our public schools are horrible and getting worse is a testament to the Nation-at-Risk-like rhetoric that we’ve been using for 3+ decades. Don’t get me wrong — there’s plenty of room for improvement — but I’ll add these positive indicators to the HS/college completion data and NAEP data in your post:

    * The percentage of 8th graders taking remedial math went from 10% in 1981 to less than 4% in 2007.
    * The percentage of 8th graders taking algebra or higher went from 13% in 1981 to 41% in 2007.
    * The percentage of high school graduates with Algebra 2 credit went from 44.5% in 1982 to 77.7% in 2004.
    * SAT math (501 to 515) and ACT math (19.9 to 21.0) both increased from 1990 to 2009.
    * While the percentage of students passing the AP Calculus AB exam has dropped (71.7% in 1990, 55.7% in 2010), there’s been a dramatic increase in participation: less than 63,000 students in 1990 and more than 245,000 in 2010.
    * The percentage of AP Calculus BC test takers has remained relatively steady (81.9% vs. 79%) between 1990 and 2010 despite participation increasing from about 13,000 to almost 79,000.
    * Despite negative press about PISA scores, we’ve quietly improved on another major international test, the TIMSS. Our 8th graders are top 10 in math, right behind those in Finland. We’re top 10 in 4th grade science, and have been since 1995. Eighth grade science is top 10, too.

    (Most of these came from the 5th slide at

    Despite all the indicators above, what the public needs is more messages and a better understanding of the vast variability found in the quality of our schools. Look close enough and you’ll find things that look more like solvable problems (given solid long-range planning and resources) rather than anything to panic over.

  3. Guy brandenburg
    Posted June 9, 2014 at 6:17 PM | Permalink

    I’ve shown much the same thing on my blog.

  4. Posted July 1, 2014 at 7:06 AM | Permalink

    Indeed. So if there is no crisis, why are certain billionaires insisting that the system is broken and must be completely overturned and replaced with a market-driven model?

    • Hannah
      Posted July 1, 2014 at 7:30 AM | Permalink

      The crisis is in the attempted destruction of public schools to privatize and profit by the wealthy elite.

      • Jan York
        Posted July 4, 2014 at 1:47 PM | Permalink

        Hannah, you said it in a nutshell. They want to bust unions because they are big watchdogs and are in their way. The rich want to get richer at the expense of our students and are using teachers as scapegoats to the problem.

    • T
      Posted July 4, 2014 at 4:29 PM | Permalink

      Smoke and mirrors for the purpose of driving down wages. Recruit from countries like India where you can pick up an engineer for 30k a year and then rationalize it to average Joe by claiming you can’t find qualified candidates in the US because the educational system is broken….then you dismantle public education turning it all over to for profit entities. Brilliant.

  5. Mike Barrett
    Posted July 1, 2014 at 12:59 PM | Permalink

    I agree, except for the achievement gap. I believe that most of that is due to poverty. The Atlantic’s recent essay on reparations

    provides more evidence that most of the achievement gap is due to income. Whites with higher incomes tend to live amongst others with similar incomes. African-Americans with higher incomes tend to live amongst others with lower incomes. Achievement correlates not only with your parents income but also with the income of the people you live and associate with.

    The quote from the essay: “Sharkey’s research shows that black families making $100,000 typically live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000. “Blacks and whites inhabit such different neighborhoods,” Sharkey writes, “that it is not possible to compare the economic outcomes of black and white children.”

  6. Posted July 2, 2014 at 5:48 AM | Permalink

    Crisis manufactured by the modern-day Robber Barons. The Industrial revolution, all over again.

  7. Posted July 5, 2014 at 5:31 AM | Permalink

    The crisis in my mind is education’s inability to mirror society today in terms of technology tools, knowledge management and workplace processes. Suggesting there is no crisis is as misguided as those suggesting public education is a failed institution. Just my twenty-five cents…keep the change…!

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