Child Trends 5

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As students head back to school, Child Trends asked some of the leading education thinkers to identify critical trends that should bebut mostly aren’ton the public radar. We asked 30 former and current political leaders in the U.S. Department of Education, heads of national education associations and businesses, leading education and economics professors, and other education experts. Here are the top five education trends they would call to America’s attention.


Education funding—K-12 and higher education—has been gutted.

The “gray peril” of education isn’t simply a majority white, aging, electorate voting on funding for what, by 2020, will be majority non-white schools. It is also the cost of teacher pension and related liabilities, which are already pulling a significant proportion of local funding out of the public K-12 system. “The increasing degree to which pension and retirement health care obligations are eating into current spending on education” was the first under-attended trend to come to mind for Harvard Graduate School of Education Associate Professor Martin West.[i]The state-run retirement system that includes teacher pensions had a $968 billion shortfall in 2013—a $54 billion increase over the previous year. State pension debt is at historically high percentages of GDP (about 8 percent), and an average of 70 cents of each dollar contributed goes toward paying debt. Perhaps the larger story is that most states have not reformed their teacher pension systems. The non-partisan National Center on Teacher Quality writes that “state lawmakers, regulators and pension boards continue to deny or ignore the crisis.”

The funding crisis has also been happening in postsecondary education. One source said, “The dramatic decline in ‘public’ funding for higher education [deserves more attention]while there is grumbling every year about the most recent annual cuts, it is rarely recognized as atwo-generational sea change that started in the 1970s.” As late as 1985, states covered about 45 percent[i] of the funding of public institutions; today they cover 2 percent. Local investment stayed around 3 percent, and federal investment has dropped a few percentage points to just under 8 percent.

[i] See NCES p. 55 of the Digest of Education Statistics 2001 at

[i] Dr. West cited the work of Michael Podgursky, e.g., and Robert M. Costrell


Averages scores for Asian, black, and Hispanic students showed 1 to 3 times the increases for whites since the mid-1990s.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) grades 4 and 8 mathematics assessments, average scale scores for Asian, black, and Hispanic students went up two to three grade levels[i] since 1996.[ii]Whites and American Indian/Alaska Native students lagged, at about one grade level.[iii] Similarly, in Grade 4 reading, white student averages increased by half that of Hispanic and black students and one third that of Asian students.[iv] Grade 8 reading was the only assessment on which gains for both white and black students increased the same amount, just 5 points, but Hispanic score averages bumped up 11 points and Asian students by 18 points.[v] (See also our recent Hispanic student math and reading reports.) Despite these gains, Asian students are the only group to score on average significantly higher, by half a grade to three grade levels, than all other groups across grade 4 and 8 math and reading assessments (2015), having overtaken the average for white students by 2003 in math and 2011 in reading. In grade 12, Asian/Pacific Islander students were the only group scoring well enough, on average, to be deemed (provisionally) academically prepared for college.

[i] The comparability of a 10-point increase on the NAEP scale to an advance of one grade level is imperfect and not endorsed by the National Center for Education Statistics or the National Assessment Governing Board. However, some commentators (see for example , Lubienski & Lubienski, 2006 and Sarah Spark’s EdWeek piece on NAEP NIES July 3, 2012) have used it to provide a sense of the practical significance of a change of this magnitude. For those who would like more precision, 10 points is roughly one third of a standard deviation, 20 points is about two-thirds, and 30 points is about a full standard deviation.

[ii] Grade 4 math Asian or Pacific Islander +27, black +26, Hispanic +23 (all statistically significant)
Grade 8 math Asian or Pacific Islander +Unknown (reporting standards not met), black +21 (statistically significant), Hispanic +20 (statistically significant)

[iii] Grade 4 math White +17 (statistically significant), American Indian/Alaska Native +10 (not statistically significant)

Grade 8 math White +12 (statistically significant), American Indian/Alaska Native +Unknown (reporting standards not met)

[iv] The average scale scores for Asian students increased 24 points, Hispanics 15 points, and black students 13 points. The average for white students increased 7 points, and there was no estimate available for American Indian/Alaska Native students. Source: NAEP Data Explorer, National Assessment of Educational Progress, Grade 4, Mathematics 1996-2015, Reading 1998-2015, Analysis run August 2016.

[v] Of all the scores noted, the 18 point average difference for Asian students in grade 8 reading and the 10 point increase for American Indian/Alaska Native students at grade 4 were not significant increases.


Children report feeling safer at school, fighting less, carrying weapons less often to school, and carrying guns less often.

The percentage of students who feared attack at school or on their way to or from school dropped from 12 percent in 1995 to less than 4 percent in 2013. Similarly, the proportion of students in grades 9 through 12 who had been in at least one physical fight in the past year decreased from 43 percent in 1991 to 25 percent in 2013 (about 30 percent of boys and nearly 20 percent of girls). Fewer students carried a weapon to school (down from 12 percent to 4 percent, and now about the same among black, white, and Hispanic students), and fewer carried a gun in the past 30 days, dropping by half for black and Hispanic students (from about 12 and 10 percent, respectively, in 1993 to 6 and 4 percent in 2015), and staying about the same for white students (7 to 6 percent).[i] While overt violence may be down, other forms of school safety have not seen similar trends; for instance, rates of bullying for high school students have remained fairly steady, at about 20 percent from 2009 through 2015.[ii] Perhaps this is because, as Kelly Vaillancourt  Strobach of the National Association of School Psychologists pointed out, “many school districts continue to equate school safety with armed security, metal detectors, or other physical measures,” which cannot target more subtle forms of violence, such as some forms of bullying.

The good news, however, is that we’ve gotten better reporting about school safety and other “non-cognitive” measures that are important to student well-being. “Social-emotional learning is starting to get addressed,” noted Libia Gil, assistant deputy secretary and director of the Office of English Language Acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education, but we need more “attention to cultural and linguistic diversity.” In fact, the Department of Education, through the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (supported by AIR and Child Trends), developed a free, downloadable web-based platform to collect school climate data. The ED School Climate Surveys allow states, local districts, and schools to collect and act on reliable, nationally-validated school climate data in real-time. David Murphey also pointed to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s development of social-emotional grade-level standards with districts and states .[i]

[i] A former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics,Gary Phillips, raised the question of the role of NAEP now that we have the Common Core, and the answer may be to advance our understanding of other areas of what students know and can do, including their social-emotional skills.

[i] Data very similar for carrying any weapon to school: Black dropped 15 to 3; Hispanic 13 to 5; and white 11 to 4. Analysis run August 2016,

[ii] Youth Risk Behavior Survey, High School, Bullying at School 2009-2015, Run Aug, 2016,


Little progress for students with disabilities.

Although we often hear about increases in the number of diagnoses of autism, the rate of students with disabilities[i] served in schools has actually remained level, at about 13 percent of enrollment, for the past 15 years. The 1 percent increase in autism has been offset by a similar decline in those with intellectual disabilities.[ii] Since NAEP recently (2009) began measuring the progress of students with disabilities (excluding those with 504 plans), the average scores have dropped,[iii] perhaps resulting in part from continued disproportionate levels of disciplinary removals (e.g., twice as likely to get an out-of-school suspension), which prompted just-releasedguidance from ED that will address factors underlying the school-to-prison pipeline. Students with disabilities have a high school dropout rate 3 times that of their non-disabled peers, and estimates are that up to 85 percent[iv] of juveniles in detention facilities are eligible for special education services.

[i] Those with an Individual Education Plan (IEP) see

[ii] Source: NCES, Children 3 to 21 years old served under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Part B, by type of disability: Selected years, 1976-77 through 2013-14,

[iii] Grade 4 math, down a statistically significant 4 points (219-215); Grade 8 mathematics down a statistically significant 3 points (246-243); Grade 4 reading down a statistically significant 3 points (187-184); and Grade 8 reading no change at 226.

[iv] See Quinn, Rutherford, Leone, Osher, & Poirier (2005) Youth with Disabilities in Juvenile Corrections: A National Survey, the National Council on Disability (2015) Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline for Students with Disabilities,


Dropout rates have declined dramatically and are at historic lows.

The rate of dropout by youth ages 16 to 24 who are not currently enrolled in school and have not completed high school or obtained a GED hasgreatly declined, from 17 percent in 1967 to just 7 percent in 2014. Since 1972, the dropout rate went from 21 to 7 percent among non-Hispanic blacks, and from 34 to 11 percent among Hispanic youth. Over the past 20 years, the percentage of disengaged youth—those ages 16 to 19 who are not working or in school—also dropped, from 16 percent to 10 percent for Hispanic youth, 14 to 10 for black, and 8 to 7 for whites. Johan Uvin, acting assistant secretary for career, technical, and adult education in the Education Department, was quick to remind us that 1 in about 10 youth disengaged from education and the workforce is still too many. He states that we need solutions for disconnected youth that are at scale/systemic, particularly transition strategies that include earn-and-learn and work-based opportunities.” But just because there is more work to do, doesn’t mean we can’t take a moment to celebrate.