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Why 17-year-olds' scores have stalled since the '70s

Robert J. Samuelson, the Newsweek and Washington Post economics columnist, edited my first news story. We were both college sophomores. I was trying out for the student newspaper. He was already a seasoned reporter and editor on the staff. He tossed the typewritten sheets back to me and said to try again.

I did as I was told. I learned much from him during that first encounter, as I have continued to do during our long friendship. He enlightens me even on topics in my specialty, such as his latest column in the Post, “The failure of school reform.

He starts with a stark summary of how little progress American teenagers have made in the last four decades of aggressive efforts to improve public schools. I use this statistic often, but Samuelson emphasizes the point nicely by quoting the raw numbers:

“In 1971, the initial year for the [National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term] reading test, the average score for 17-year-olds was 285; in 2008, the average score was 286. The math test started in 1973, when 17-year-olds averaged 304; in 2008, the average was 306.”

He recounts explanations for this that fail to withstand scrutiny. The problem can’t be high student-teacher ratios because those have dropped. It can’t be minimal preschool preparation because a larger portion of children are getting that early start. Teacher pay has also improved to the point where two people married to each other and each making the average teacher salary of $53,230 “would belong in the richest 20 percent of households,” Samuelson says.

Instead, he concludes, “the larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail.”

Samuelson is on shakier ground here since we have no useful measure of the level of student motivation in the early 1970s compared to now. He suggests that the significant decline in high school dropout rates since the 1940s and 1950s means more disaffected students are staying in school. But since the early 1970s, when we began to measure the lack of 17-year-old academic progress, that portion of drop-outs has not changed, and the latest analysis suggests it has gone up a bit.

Still, it is hard to deny his view that in the last 40 years as "adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded." The old my-way-or-the-highway ethos of school discipline that ruled even nice suburban high schools like mine in the 1960s is long gone. Even the schools with the toughest discipline policies these days are run by educators who do everything they can to keep students in school.
There isn't enough data to say for sure, but Samuelson may be right that our high schools have a higher portion of bored, restless, unmotivated students than they did before. That could explain, at least in part, why their average reading and math scores numbers have not improved. I think Samuelson could also refer to his frequent columns on how immigration has inflated our poverty rates, and suggest that same influx may be depressing average test scores.

Samuelson says policymakers should reconsider before they blame teachers for not doing a better job. Against the realities of low student motivation, Samuelson says, “school ‘reform’ rhetoric is blissfully evasive.” One of the most recent examples of overblown rhetoric, he says, is U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s call for “a great teacher” in every classroom.

Duncan is obviously exaggerating what is possible. But I don’t think it is so wild to hope for more great teachers than we have now. Samuelson acknowledged to me that skilled teachers are able to motivate unmotivated students. If only we were working harder to show our new teachers how to do that.

The issue Samuelson raises is at the center of our many discussions on this blog about how to improve schools. Will making the teachers better and giving them more support to motivate students do the trick? Or should we focus on improving the students’ attitudes and habits before they ever get to school, by giving their families more support?

Something has to be done. Samuelson’s recapitulation of the relevant numbers shows how difficult that job is. "If we don't recognize that motivation is a problem," he told me, "we won't address it."

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | September 7, 2010; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  17 year old test scores unimproved since 1970s, NAEP scores, columnist Robert J. Samuelson says the problem unaddressed problem is student motivation, good teachers can produced more motivated students, more motivated students make teachers more effecdtive  
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Brilliant, Mr. Samuelson. Thanks for passing it on, Jay.

Instances of significant motivation on groups of children from our past we should remember:
Since the late sixties, the great influx of families from various parts of the Asian-Pacific Rim was notable for the high achievements in education that have been accomplished by these immigrant children. They took advantage of the services available to all who CHOSE to use them in the USA. The academic achievements by Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese and all the others are common knowledge because the parents made sure their children behaved and performed, the results of high expectations and supervision. This, despite many of them escaping their countries as refugees or seeking out better opportunites abroad not available at home.

Going back to the late 1800's and first half of the 20th century, segregated schools of the South are now recognised for the high achievements and polished behavior of the students, again because of high parental expectations and control of those circumstances that they could influence. Parents took charge and continually supervised their children's activities, whether in school in local society.

The lesson here is that those parents who take complete responsibility for raising their children also push for opportunities available to all. We are all better for that, not just those individuals.

I guess it is too risky for politicians and education policy-makers to say the first responsibility is for parents to be in charge from start to finish. That might give away too much of their power and influence in spending tax money and controling the media.

Are the Gates Foundation and other super-rich entreprenures going to throw money into this area? It would most likely have much better results than what they are doing now.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | September 7, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

I just don't see motivation as the root cause. Lack of parental expectations could result in low motivation. Poor teaching could lead to bored students. A dearth of G&T opportunities could result in high achieving students appearing disinterested. A failure by school systems to demonstrate the relevance of a high school degree could lead students to question why they are seeking one. None of these problems have simple solutions, but to argue that motivation is the cause of the problem is a convenient way to ignore the actual problems.

Posted by: horacemann | September 7, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

I teach in the Washington metropolitan area. Many of my college freshmen and sophomores have never gone to the Smithsonian museums or a national park. These are free resources; the only cost is that of transportation. Why not? Because their parents didn't take them. I'd love to know why not.
These days, public school administrators are obsessively concerned with test scores in reading and math and in steering students into science, technology, engineering, and math. There's so much emphasis on tests that some districts actually try to ensure that every teacher teaches subjects in the same way, at least in the elementary schools. There's no room for creativity in the classroom. How long do we expect great teachers will stay in the profession under these conditions--parents who will take their kids to play on five different soccer teams but never to the Smithsonian and administrators who are obsessed with tests?

Posted by: jlhare1 | September 7, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

"I teach in the Washington metropolitan area. Many of my college freshmen and sophomores have never gone to the Smithsonian museums or a national park. These are free resources; the only cost is that of transportation. Why not? Because their parents didn't take them. I'd love to know why not. "

Possibly the transformation of the American family from one wage earner to two?

Posted by: edlharris | September 7, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Possibly the transformation of the American family from one wage earner to two?

Posted by: edlharris

And it's worse in some places; one wage earner working 5 jobs, or 2 working 5. Just too lazy to read to their kids and take them on field trips in between their 80 hour work weeks.

Posted by: mcstowy | September 7, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

I think it's misleading to look at overall scores given the demographic changes that have happened in the U.S. since the 1970's. Since 1971, scores are up for whites (4 pts.), blacks (28 pts.), and Hispanics (17 pts.) However, minorities make up a much larger percentage of the tested population now than in 1971 (nearly half vs. only 20%).

Posted by: CrimsonWife | September 7, 2010 8:11 PM | Report abuse

Robert J. Samuelson may be correct but who is he talking about. Is it the Title 1 poverty public schools of large urban areas or the middle class public schools?

I hate this word reform in reference to public education since it is so meaningless.

Standardized testing will simply make the students of the middle class public schools more bored with greater stress on rote learning instead of thought. At the same time it should be apparent for the students that have difficulty in learning it is effective.

Instead of educational reform we really should say educational stupidity.

Posted by: bsallamack | September 7, 2010 8:21 PM | Report abuse

The main causes for 40 years of educational stagnation in the U.S. are unmotivated students who have no vision of their own futures, students who see no connection between what they are doing in the classroom and their lives as adults.

Tragically, very little in the current repertoire of educational reforms adequately addresses this basic failing of school systems. Yes, we work on pushing teachers to perform, work to provide immediate incentives for students who perform, and constantly work to improve teaching methods and environments. But when are we working to give our students a truly credible connection to their own futures?

The “you-will-need-to-know-this-when” statements are common from teachers, but students too often find the credibility of such statements lacking. Teachers must have more help so as to deliver this critical message in a way that is more credible for students. The need for such credibility is the focus pushing the School Archive Project.

The School Archive Project is centered around a 500-pound vault bolted to the floor in a central location of the school lobby where it is passed many times every day by the greatest number of students. The vault stores letters written by parents to their child about both the family history they give to their child and their hopes and dreams for their child. A second letter is written by the child, after reading their parent's letter, about their history and their own plans for the future. These letters are placed together into one self addressed envelope by each child and then placed into the vault.

They stay in the vault for 10-years. At the 10-year class reunion students know they will be invited to speak with the then current classes in the school about their "Recommendations for Success." They are warned to prepare for questions such as: “What would you do differently if you were 13 again?”

The first middle school Archive Project started in 2005 with students who became the Graduation Class of 2009. That was the largest graduation class in over 12 years at both of the high schools receiving these first School Archive Project Children. Then the 2010 graduation classes set another record!

One of those two high schools had an 8 year average graduation rate of 34% from 2000 to 2007. With the class of 2009 that rate was up to 49%. With the Class of 2010 that rate went up to over 60%! Something good is happening!

From 2005/2006 to 2009/2010, as total enrollment went down 2%, the 11th and 12th grade enrollments at all 32 high schools in DISD went up over 5% for an increase of 758 11th and 12th grade students. Only 2 of the 32 DISD high schools account for 417 of these students, or 55% of the increase: the two high schools who have received almost all of the Middle School Archive Project students through 2010!

The 8th school is now planning to start an 8th School Archive Project in Dallas ISD. Students are motivated by a more real vision of their own future.

Posted by: bbetzen | September 7, 2010 9:49 PM | Report abuse

I've always believed that the public schools reflect US society-at-large, and while I think Samuelson is definitely on to something with the issue of student motivation, I think it's necessary to go deeper.

In the last 40 years, the number of changes in our society and the pace at which they have accelerated is staggering: Ed Harris mentioned the 1-2-3+ paycheck earners in the family; the rate of divorce has skyrocketed, we have gone from portable typewriters to computer keyboards,
phone booths to cell phones, fallout from Viet Nam, AIDS, drugs, huge population increases, many more women in the work force, etc. etc.

The schools and parents have to try and keep pace with the trends, and somewhere in all of the rapid transformations in our society we have left behind the notion of actual TIME, substituting "quality time" (15 minutes?) for the slow-paced museum wandering mentioned by jlhare1; wanting children to grow up ever faster and robbing them of a childhood; expecting schools to teach kids the nuts and bolts of biological reproduction but not spending time on the importance of developing actual relationships.....

In the meantime, how can a school plan courses for job readiness or a student feel motivated towards a 'career' even 2 years away from graduation when so many of our jobs have been sent overseas, and it's not clear that anything else will take it's place?

I've mentioned but a few of the hundreds if not thousands of questions that make up an American crazy quilt of considerations for what we want and need in our schools - and the answers are not likely to come easily.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 7, 2010 11:00 PM | Report abuse

With NAEP scores in reading and math remaining flat for four decades, I offer the explanation that time-on-task for each area hasn't changed much either. The school day and school year haven't changed during this time period, and teacher quality has probably not changed enough to make a difference either.

So what's left? Either students are not studying as "hard" as they should (the lack of motivation explanation); or, they are just not spending significantly more time performing in these two areas than they did in the early 1970's.

Performing is the combination of classroom instruction and outside assignments. Personally, I believe that the quality and quantity of homework specific to these areas has at least stagnated and probably has fallen off compared to earlier times.

Certainly the ability to engage in discursive and expository writing has dropped off precipitously from earlier times. This type of writing is certainly related to reading ability. (Do you really know a word if you have never used it in a sentence?) Similarly, I think most students don't do enough problem sets in math to really learn the material.

Thus we're left with the result that students just don't do enough work to raise NAEP scores. However, they may very well be doing all that they are assigned. It's not so much a lack of motivation here as a lack of being held to a higher standard that would in turn translate into higher NAEP scores.

You get what you “pay” for.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | September 8, 2010 8:01 AM | Report abuse

In 1971 we did not have special education in public schools. Those children were shunted off and certainly not tested. This is also true of non-English speaking students. Today all those students are tested and included in average. I do not know if the level of the material tested today in the NAEP is the equivalent to 1971. I do know that the level of math tested in the SAT has increased since I took it in 1971.

Posted by: sopranovcm | September 8, 2010 8:17 AM | Report abuse

PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large posted: "In the meantime, how can a school plan courses for job readiness or a student feel motivated towards a 'career' even 2 years away from graduation when so many of our jobs have been sent overseas, and it's not clear that anything else will take it's place?"

Yes, and H-1B visas perpetuate the cycle of sending our jobs overseas as well as squelching opportunities for US citizens. After witnessing the graduate school process of my son, from applying to visiting schools to acceptances/rejections, the number of foreign students in American university spots (in the sciences) is quite high. Some of his best buddies have been/are foreign students; however, the reality is such that the competition for spots in graduate school and professional positions following graduation is stout. Though he did land an excellent job prior to graduation, he is aware that in this market of so few jobs, that many foreign students were applying to the same precious few positions as well. Furthermore, the students that do return to their homeland are now highly skilled, thanks to American universities, and are often the same people to whom "our jobs are sent overseas."

We have created an interesting cycle. Observe for yourselves the faculty rosters of the schools of science in our universities. While it can be argued that our country lacks the skilled scientists in certain fields, and we must therefore hire with H-1B visas, we need to back up the thought process and examine the workings of our graduate schools and the narrowing pipeline of opportunity for our youth.

On low student motivation in school....sometimes it can be blamed on the clock. Time to move along to the next subject. Not time to even see where that lab experiment could go, and no, can't leave that stuff out, gotta clean up for the next class. Not time for all of those questions; that won't be covered on the test anyway. We have conditioned our kids to take that curiosity and "put a lid on it."

Having home-schooled our kids from the early grades until high school, I have seen where healthy and engaged curiosity can take a mind, often unhindered by the clock, unhindered by testing, and unhindered by parameters of subject lines. I never gave them a test. I was keenly aware of their progress. Research was mostly a joy for them. Sure, nearly impossible for a typical school to simulate, but nevertheless, most highly effective. Feynman - "the pleasure of finding things out."

Posted by: shadwell1 | September 8, 2010 8:58 AM | Report abuse

First, the NAEP is also a standardized test, and I would like to know if it is any better than other standardized tests. (Jay, why don't you follow the preparation of a standardized test from start to finish--assuming anyone would allow you to?)

Second, today's students no longer believe in the value of hard work and learning. My generation was told that if we studied hard we would be able to get a good job and if we worked hard at that job we would be able to keep it. I have lost one job because the new manager wanted her own people in there and two others because the executives running the company saved every penny they could by cutting service and eventually ran the companies out of business. Today's students understand clearly that working hard and knowing a lot is no guarantee of employment.

Third, beginning with the baby-boomers the schools began emphasizing just getting the kids through. There were so many of us that the schools sometimes needed to hire whoever was available regardless of qualifications. So many textbooks were needed that publishers had no time to edit carefully. There was no room in the class to hold back a student who failed (or advance a bright one) and very little money for enrichment classes. There was no money for field trips and the buses that would have been used were in use 8 hours a day with various start and dismissal times in different schools in the district. (Sometimes more than 8--for a while, my brother's school operated two shifts a day.) The tragedy is that superficial schooling became the norm, and now very few people realize they had a substandard education. My father, born in 1916, had a science teacher who was a Ph.D. and had written a textbook. My bioloby textbook was 10 years old and written by a committee, and my chemistry teacher was an education major who was hired primarily because the school needed a chemistry teacher in the middle of the year and, having graduated from college in January, he was working in a factory and available to the schools. (I once told my father his education wasn't so great since it hadn't taught him to keep plastic dishes from contacting a hot pan; he pointed out there had been no plastic when he studied science!)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | September 8, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

While I generally agree with Samuelson's article, it's not just that we are forcing more unmotivated students to stay in school. Those students dropped out back then for a reason--they didn't have the interest OR, for the most part, the cognitive ability to succeed.

But instead of just setting the bar a bit higher--keep these kids in school, turn them out with some basic math and writing skills--we said "No, by golly, every kid can learn algebra, literature, and advanced science!" And when it doesn't work out, we blame the teachers or the kids (Samuelson is, after all, just blaming the kids, while Jay is blaming the teachers).

Rather than acknowledge that cognitive ability has something to do with the gap, we pretend that there's something wrong with the education.

I agree with Samuelson. He's exactly right, and Jay, your notion that we need better teachers is insulting to the many, many teachers who bust their kahoochies trying to teach 11th grade history to highschoolers who can't read, or try for the third time to teach algebra to kids who can't do fractions. It wasn't lousy teachers who led those kids to that situation, either--it was the insistence that cognitive ability plays no part in reading or math skills at an earlier age.

It's a joke. It's insulting to everyone. But politically, we can't accept the alternative. So we pretend there's something wrong with the kids or the teachers.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | September 8, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Edlharris wrote:

"I teach in the Washington metropolitan area. Many of my college freshmen and sophomores have never gone to the Smithsonian museums or a national park. These are free resources; the only cost is that of transportation. Why not? Because their parents didn't take them. I'd love to know why not. "

Possibly the transformation of the American family from one wage earner to two?

The fact that many local families ignore the Smithsonian cannot be blamed on the "busyness" of two working parents or single parents. Check out the shopping malls on weekends, they're plenty busy.

Posted by: trace1 | September 8, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

great comments. For sideswithkids, I did follow the preparation of a Va. state test more than a decade ago. It is time to try to do that again.
sopranovcm is also right to mention the special ed factor.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 8, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

The Virginia state tests are interesting. My wife taught in Fairfax county while they were being prepared and thinks their process should serve as a model for the nation. Apparently, the first SOLs were terrible, but the state solicited teacher feedback and acted on it. Each year, the tests got better, at least until she left Fairfax in 2004.

Posted by: jlhare1 | September 8, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

I'm confused as to how ascribing causality to parents or other factors for kids not going to museums, is going to get those kids into the museums.

Do blog comments have some power of text-activated teletransport that I have not been told about?

If not, might there be more fruitful approaches to the problem?

Posted by: hainish | September 8, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Jay asks "Will making the teachers better and giving them more support to motivate students do the trick? Or should we focus on improving the students’ attitudes and habits before they ever get to school, by giving their families more support?".
My answer is BOTH. Both sides of the problem need to be attacked. The two sides of the problem impact each other. For example, bored unmotivated students are a big reason why talented people don't want to go into teaching. I know a number of people who have worked in high tech, and who would be great at teaching math, who think about it and then say "no way" because they don't want to have to deal with students who are behavior problems or who won't do the work.

I teach at the college level, and am seeing the same problem there. This is a new problem that I did not see so much in the 80's and 90's. Most of my students are completely unengaged, have no idea why they are in college, refuse to read the book (or even acquire it), and rarely hand anything in. We can't fail them all because then we would have no students. The problem that Samuelson is describing has now hit higher ed.

Posted by: bkmny | September 11, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

I disagree with PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large that part of the problem is “wanting children to grow up ever faster and robbing them of a childhood.” From my point of view, we are prolonging childhood and resisting giving children any responsibility. Yes, we give them clothing that makes 4-year-olds look like streetwalkers, and they have their own phones and computers and some teenagers have more spending money than their parents do. But in many places, teens are forbidden to go into stores during certain hours or walk down a public sidewalk without adult supervision, no matter what their reason. During the Depression, 16-year-olds were sometimes turned out to make their own way so there would be food at home for the younger ones. While no one wants to see this again, how many 16-year-olds today are ever asked to give up a trip to the mall or an after-school activity to start dinner or watch younger siblings for an afternoon? Instead, we pay lots of money for after-school sports to make sure they have adult supervision at every minute. My brother got a job covering sport for the weekly paper while still a junior in high school; not only do some argue that high school students should spend their time playing sports, but I have substituted in high school where the students—in college prep programs--are given worksheets to fill in blanks instead of being asked to write the answers (and many complain that these are “baby” assignments).Boys in my childhood neighborhood worked in farm fields for neighbors from age 12 and even drove farm trucks to the elevator; now we wonder if 16-year-olds are mature enough to drive a car. They might be if we expected them to be and didn’t think maturity will magically arrive on a particular birthday. At 14 my brother helped plan a family vacation, navigated for the driver, and tracked the gas mileage; a 14-year-old newspaper carrier couldn’t substitute for the carrier in another part of her neighborhood because she didn’t know the street names. How many know what plans their parents have made for their college tuition? Or even how much is spent on food?

Last year, we saw Sen. Kennedy’s 11-year-old grandson supply a reading in his funeral before an audience containing many national leaders and a nationwide television audience; I have known of parents who would not take their 11-year-old to a neighbor’s funeral for fear of upsetting him. Perhaps the Kennedy boy is more mature than other 11-year-olds because his parents are allowing him to grow up.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | September 12, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

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