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Learn more – The New York Times

Readers of this newsletter know that we’re trying to avoid bad news. My colleagues and I cover lots of worrying stories here, but we also want to make sure we cover encouragingly. After all, the world is full of both.

Today, I want to focus on a positive and mostly overlooked trend in American education. For years you have probably heard that our schools are in crisis. And K-12 training in the United States certainly has problems. But it has also improved for much of the last few decades, according to several crucial measurements.

From the late 1990s, the math skills of elementary and middle school students began to improve. A few years later, reading skills also began to improve.

Here are the average results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress for fourth and eighth graders since 1996:

And here are measures of racial inequality from the math part of the same test. As you can see, the gap between white students and colored students narrowed in the 1990s and early 2000s:

Racial gaps in reading skills also became smaller during this period.

As Thomas Kane, a Harvard professor of education and economics, says of recent educational advances: “It may be the most important social policy success of the last half century that no one seems to be aware of.”

There seem to be two main reasons.

First, many states began to emphasize the accountability of schools from the 1990s. Massachusetts, North Carolina, Texas, and other states more carefully measured student learning and pushed struggling schools to apply approaches that worked elsewhere. The accountability movement became national in the 2000s through laws signed by George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The timing of the increase in test scores is consistent with this story, as researchers at the Brookings Institution have noted. As you can see in the charts above, the biggest gains came shortly after states began holding schools more responsible for student learning. In recent years, the gains have leveled off. This pattern suggests that schools made some important changes in response to accountability policies, but then struggled to maintain the pace of improvement.

Another major reason for increased learning seems to have been school funding: It increased during the 1990s and early 2000s. States with particularly sharp increases included Michigan, Nebraska, New York and Vermont, according to Kenneth Shores of the University of Delaware and Christopher Candelaria of Vanderbilt.

Typically, the grant increases were larger for low-income schools than for high-income schools. This may help explain why racial gaps in reading and math skills decreased.

“Exposure to higher levels of public K-12 spending when you go to school has a pretty big beneficial effect on children’s adult outcomes,” said Kirabo Jackson, an economist at Northwestern University. “These effects are much more pronounced for children from low-income families.”

Of course, there are reservations about the latest trends in educational progress. The racial divides, though smaller, are still large. Reading results did not increase as much as math results (perhaps because reading is more influenced by students’ lives outside of school, while math is mostly taught in school). High school test scores did not increase as much as middle school or elementary school scores. And some forms of accountability backfired, leading schools to focus more on taking tests than on actual learning.

Yet the overall trend – American children are learning more – was hugely positive. Education often changes people’s lives. A study in Texas, for example, showed that improvements in previously struggling schools led to students becoming more likely to graduate from both high school and college and earn more by the age of 25.

Broader research gives a similar message. The pay gap between university graduates and everyone else is close to record highs. More educated Americans are more likely to be in stable relationships and to be happy with their lives and less likely to suffer from loneliness, chronic pain, and alcohol and drug abuse.

These differences have existed for a long time, but they have become significantly greater in recent decades, as economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton documented in their 2020 book “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism.”

Therefore, the improvement in American schooling in the 1990s and early 2000s was a reason to celebrate, as Kane says. It deserved to be big news, even if it was not one.

Now I imagine some of you are thinking: But what has happened to these trends during the pandemic? In another newsletter this week, I will try to answer that question.

The first Monday in May means it’s time for the Met Gala. Officially, the event is a black-tie collection for the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. Unofficially, the gala is the Super Bowl of fashion, where celebrities try to encourage each other on the red carpet. (Their efforts are often trumped by the presence of Rihanna, who is the sartorial queen of the event.)

If it feels like the last Met Gala was only yesterday, it’s because the 2021 edition was held in September (due to the pandemic). This event unveiled part one of an exhibition on American fashion at the Costume Institute. This year’s gala – co-hosted by Regina King, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds – opens part two of the show. The dress code is “gilded glamor.”

“Think Astors, Vanderbilts, Whitneys, and Edith Wharton books,” writes Vanessa Friedman. Expect a lot of people showing up and dripping in gold. – Sanam Yar, a morning writer

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