American school kids are doing all right
A Harvard study finds universal gains in math and reading over 50 years, pointing to the innate nature of intelligence.
It’s a common complaint in the United States. For decades, critics of public education have claimed that school standards and achievements are in steady decline, jeopardizing society, security, and the economy.
Not so, according to a new Harvard University study based on 7 million national academic test results between 1971 and 2017 (the last year data were available). It found students are learning mathematics four grade levels higher than they were 50 years ago. In reading, the gain is a full year.
The study undercuts negative narratives in some significant ways. It shows that any economic advantage by a child’s community (often short-handed as “ZIP codes”) does not predetermine academic success. More importantly, it provides fresh evidence that intelligence is innate regardless of genetic background. Both findings support efforts to make teaching of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) more inclusive.
“When we examine differences by student race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, longstanding assumptions about education inequality start to falter,” noted the authors, M. Danish Shakeel and Paul E. Peterson, in the publication Education Next.
“Black, Hispanic, and Asian students are improving far more quickly than their white classmates in elementary, middle, and high school. ... Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds also are progressing more quickly than their more advantaged peers in elementary and middle school.”
Those trends, the authors note, may reflect progress in areas outside education, such as better nutrition and cleaner air and water. Yet the study’s more significant contribution reaches beyond material development. It adds evidence to work showing that intelligence is not a fixed endowment.
“Not long ago, intelligence quotient, or IQ, was considered a genetically determined constant that shifted only over the course of eons, as more intellectually and physically fit homo sapiens survived and procreated at higher rates,” the authors observed. The growth rates they found in math and reading skills, however, confirm similar growth rates in fluid reasoning and critical thinking measured by other studies in recent years.
The debate about whether intelligence is a fixed or growth mindset has found its way into the classroom. A 2018 paper published in CBE – Life Sciences Education noted that “mounting evidence of the efficacy of active learning” – which rejects the notion that some students are more able to learn than others – “has prompted educators to consider adoption of these practices in college-level classrooms.”
Public education in the U.S. has many problems to solve, especially the educational setbacks from two years of forced remote learning and lately a teacher shortage. Yet educators can take heart for the progress already made and new evidence that a child’s mental abilities are innate and unlimited.