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.

Jefferee Woo/Tampa Bay Times via AP
Eighth-grade students use a sphere and foam roller in a middle school in Pinellas Park, Fla., trying out exercise techniques from Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady.

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to American school kids are doing all right
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today