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II Part Analytic Section


The Status of Education For All in the United States

In challenging the nations of the world to pursue the goal of universal basic education, the Framework for Action to Meet Basic Learning Needs specified six "target dimensions" to be used as a basis for setting intermediate- and long-term goals and for measuring progress toward the goal of EFA. These target dimensions were:

1. Expansion of early childhood care and developmental activities, especially for poor, disadvantaged, and disabled children.

2. Universal access to, and completion of, primary education by the year 2000.

3. Improvement in learning achievement.

4. Reduction of the adult illiteracy rate, especially the disparity between male and female rates.

5. Expansion of basic education and training in other essential skills required by youth and adults.

6. Increased acquisition by individuals and families of the knowledge, skills, and values required for better living made available through all education channels, including mass media.

Following is a discussion of where the United States stands in relation to these six objectives with special reference to progress made during the decade since Jomtien toward attainment of them.

By standards of most countries, the United States can be said to have reached the goal of universal basic education. Virtually all U.S. children and adults have completed primary school and can demonstrate competency in basic literacy and numeracy. Nevertheless, a number of qualifications must be made.

First, the definition of basic education in the United States has evolved to the point where a high school diploma is now seen as the minimal level of education required for entrance into the work force. Dropping out remains a problem at the high school level, especially among students from racial and ethnic minorities and low-income families. Thus, the United States still has some distance to go before achieving this heightened standard of basic education.

Second, it must be recalled that Jomtien did not equate education with formal schooling. While in some countries schools bear the overwhelming responsibility for delivering education, this is not the situation in the United States. Schools are backed up by numerous other formal institutions, from libraries and museums to zoos and nature centers, that are readily available to children in all but the most remote rural communities. Moreover, virtually every U.S. child has access to educational programs on television. These range from popular preschool programs such as Sesame Street to entire cable channels devoted to history and science. These educational offerings reinforce the teaching of schools in core educational areas, and they transmit valuable information on topics such as nutrition and health.

1. Expansion of early childhood care and development

Early childhood care and development takes many forms, from maternal care in the home to formal educational programs. Enrollment in the latter has increased consistently and substantially in the United States in recent decades. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the U.S. Department of Education reported that the proportion of U.S. children aged three to five who were enrolled in preprimary programs more than doubled between 1965 and 1990, and as shown in Figure 1, modest gains continued in the 1990s.

Analysis by NCES of enrollment rates for three- to five-year-olds in center-based programs or kindergartens during the 1990s yields somewhat higher rates. Enrollment for three-year-olds held steady between 1991 and 1996, while the proportion of four-year-olds and five-year-olds rose. One factor in the growth in preprimary enrollment in recent decades has been an increase in the number of women with young children entering the work force.

By and large, three- and four-year-olds were enrolled in private programs, while the overwhelming majority of five-year-olds were in public kindergartens. As is discussed later, one consequence of this heavy reliance on private resources for younger children in that center-based enrollment correlates closely with socioeconomic status.

Comparison with other countries

Despite such gains, preprimary enrollment in the United States is below that of many other developed countries, especially in the years before kindergarten. In 1996, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released data on the proportion of two- to four-year-olds taking part in educational programs in 27 countries. The proportions of this age cohort enrolled in such programs ranged from about 12 percent in Korea and Switzerland to 79 percent in Belgium and New Zealand. In the United States, 34 percent of two- to four-year- olds were enrolled, well below the OECD mean of 41 percent. This figure was higher than the proportion in ten countries and lower than that in 16 others.

Jomtien made a distinction between early childhood development and formal preschool education, and this distinction is relevant to the United States. An abundance of reading materials are available for parents and their preschool children. Radio and television are also important sources of information on nutrition, health, and parenting.

Project Head Start

The major early childhood intervention program in the United States is Project Head Start, which began in 1965. This federally funded program is a comprehensive child-development initiative intended primarily for preschool children whose families fall below the poverty line. Head Start employs a "whole-child" philosophy that combines early education activities with health and nutrition services and stresses family and community participation.

In 1999, Head Start served nearly 800,000 children. Although the program enjoys widespread popular and political support, it still reaches only about half of the more than 1.6 million children estimated to be eligible.

Factors that have an impact on education

The educational prospects for large numbers of U.S. children are put at risk by poverty and other factors associated with low achievement and dropping out. According to the Federal Interagency Forum on Children and Family Statistics, which is a collaborative effort of 18 federal agencies, 19 percent of children lived in families with incomes below the poverty level in 1997, a proportion that has remained relatively stable for the last two decades. The proportion of children living in extreme poverty grew slightly between 1980 and 1997, from 7 to 8 percent.

Forum data showed that the proportion of infants born with low birth weight was 8 percent in 1997, the highest figure in more than 20 years. According to UNICEF, the United States ranks 159th among 193 countries surveyed in under-five mortality rates—below virtually every other developed country. On the other hand, the mortality rate for children is falling, and the proportion of poor children who receive the proper series of vaccines has grown.

Early childhood interventions

Numerous researchers in the United States have documented the educational and other benefits of early childhood intervention programs. A number of reports on the effects of particular programs, usually small in scale, have found that poor children who receive good daycare from infancy on are more likely to graduate from high school, go to college, find employment, and avoid problems with the law than their peers who do not take part in such programs.

A RAND team led by Lynn Karoly and Peter Greenwood examined data on nine programs for which evaluations had been conducted. They concluded that early interventions programs targeted at disadvantaged children "can provide significant benefits" to participating children and their families. These benefits include short-term gains in the emotional or cognitive development of the child, improvements in educational outcomes, reduced levels of criminal activity, and improvements in health-related indicators, such as child abuse. The researchers also concluded that, at least for some disadvantaged children and their families, government funds invested early in the lives of children result in compensating decreases in government expenditures later.

Another study by Arthur J. Reynolds and other researchers at the University of Wisconsin also documented benefits of early intervention. It concluded, "The hundreds of studies of demonstration and large-scale programs that now exist provide very strong evidence that most programs of relatively good quality have meaningful short-term effects on cognitive ability, early school achievement and social adjustment. There is also increasing evidence that interventions can produce middle-to longer-run effects on school achievement, special education placement, grade retention, disruptive behavior and delinquency and high school graduation."

Researchers studying these issues are quick to point out that much has yet to be learned about which students benefit most from such interventions and how programs should be targeted to achieve maximum efficiency. Most analysts agree that, as a National Research Council report, "Making Money Matter," put it, "early intervention services provided to the disadvantaged have greater payoffs than services provided to children whose home environments do not place them at educational risk." Researchers also agree that the quality of programs is important, that long-term cognitive benefits will depend at least in part on the effectiveness of subsequent schooling, and that such benefits must be evaluated in light of physical health, nutrition, and family benefits associated with program participation.

2. Universal access to, and completion of, primary/basic education

The United States has achieved education for all at the primary level. Enrollment at the secondary level has grown, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the student-age population, and attainment rates compare favorably with those of other industrial countries. Particular progress has been made in enrollment of students from racial and ethnic minorities, students for whom English is a second language, and students with disabilities.

The documents that emerged from Jomtien emphasized that definitions of education for all must necessarily vary from country to country. As already noted, the United States has achieved universal basic education at the primary school level, but it has not yet reached the point where all students obtain a high school diploma, which is now a necessity for gainful employment. The United States differs from many other countries in that compulsory schooling ends at age 16, thus making it possible for many students to leave school before completing basic education as defined in United States. Dropping out remains a serious problem at the secondary level, especially among racial and ethnic minorities.

Total primary and secondary enrollment

After declining during the 1970s and early 1980s as the last of the baby boomers worked their way through the educational system, total primary and secondary school enrollment in public and private schools in the United States grew steadily during the late 1980s and 1990s, reaching an all-time high of 52.7 million in 1998. The upward trend is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, with enrollment projected to increase by an additional 3 percent, to 54.3 million, by 2008.

Total enrollment in institutions of higher education has also continued to grow steadily, from 10.1 million full-time-equivalent students in 1990 to 10.4 million in 1996.

Enrollment as a proportion of all children

The proportion of children aged five to 17 enrolled in school has grown steadily, from 72 percent at the turn of the last century to 90 percent in 1989-90. It rose from 90.2 percent in 1989-90 to 91.7 percent in 1995-96.

Accordingly, virtually all U.S. adults now have at least a primary education. The proportion of persons aged 25 and older who had completed five years of elementary schooling rose from 97.5 percent in 1990 to 98.3 percent in 1997. Among adults aged 25-29, the proportion with five years of primary education went from 98.8 percent to 99.2 percent during the period from 1990 to 1997, and the proportion of those with a high school diploma rose from 86 to 87 percent.

Increasing racial and ethnic diversity

The American school population is becoming increasingly diverse racially and ethnically. For example, the proportion of African American students in grades one to 12 rose from 19.8 percent to 25.0 percent between 1990 and 1997.

Diversity is particularly notable in inner-city schools. African Americans accounted for 33 percent of students who lived in central cities and attended public schools in 1990 and 32 percent in 1996. Hispanics accounted for 20 percent of such students in 1990 and 25 percent in 1996.

Since the 1970s, U.S. colleges and universities have also become increasingly diverse racially and ethnically. The proportion of minorities enrolled in higher education grew from 19.6 percent in 1990 to 25.2 percent in 1996, with most of the growth being accounted for by Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander students.

Comparison with other countries

U.S. enrollment and school completion rates compare favorably with those of other industrial countries. Data on the proportion of persons aged 25-64 who have completed upper secondary education show that the United States, with 86 percent, ranks highest among 26 industrial countries. The only other countries in which at least 80 percent of this age cohort are secondary school graduates are the Czech Republic, Germany, Norway, and Switzerland.

Figures on the younger 25- to 34-year-old cohort, however, suggest that other countries have gradually caught up to or surpassed the United States in high school completion. The U.S. rate of 87 percent is the same as that of Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, and lower than that of the Czech Republic, Korea, and Norway.

Dropping out at the secondary level

Although the United States has achieved universal access at the elementary level, a substantial minority of students—about one in 20—drop out of school at the middle and high school levels. These figures are a matter of concern because high school dropouts have lower earnings, experience more unemployment, and are more likely to end up needing public support, going to prison, and becoming pregnant than their peers who have a diploma. Nevertheless, long-term trends regarding dropouts in the United States are favorable.

NCES defines the event dropout rate as the percentage of persons aged 15-24 in grades 10-12 who were enrolled in school the previous October but who were not enrolled and had not graduated in October of the current year. This rate decreased from 6.7 percent in 1974 to 4.6 percent in 1997, and in some years, 1990 and 1991, it was as low as 4.0 percent.

The status dropout rate describes the number of persons in a particular age cohort who lack a high school diploma. Among 16- to 24-year-olds, this rate decreased from 14.3 percent in 1974 to 11.0 percent in 1997. Nevertheless, over the last decade, between 300,000 and 500,000 10th to 12th graders have left school each year without completing a high school program.

One reason for the relatively large high school completion rate is that the United States offers a number of "second chances" for students to obtain a high school diploma, including attendance at special school-based programs and obtaining a General Education Credential (GED) credential, usually by passing a high school equivalency examination. Some critics, however, see a possible downside to this situation. In a recent report to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Richard Kazis and Hilary Kopp note, "The earnings of GED holders tend to be lower than those of graduates with regular diplomas who do not continue postsecondary studies. In fact, some studies have even found that their earnings differ little, if at all, from those of dropouts."

Enrollment of students with disabilities

The United States is unusual in that, since the early 1970s, federal legislation has required local public school systems to provide all children who have disabilities with the sort of education that will enable them to develop their knowledge and skills to the fullest extent possible. Figures 7A and 7B show how, as a result of this mandate, the number of children with disabilities served in federally supported programs for the disabled has grown steadily over the past decade, as has the share such pupils represent in total enrollment.

Most of the increase in special education enrollment can be attributed to a steady increase in services for children diagnosed as having specific learning disabilities. The number of such pupils in federally supported programs grew dramatically in recent decades, from 800,000 in 1976-77 to 2.1 million in 1990-91. By 1996-97, the number had reached 2.7 million. The proportion of learning disabled students among all disabled students more than doubled, from 22 percent in 1976-77 to 45 percent in 1996-97.

The legislation also provided that, whenever feasible, such children should be taught in regular classrooms. Between 1990 and 1996, the proportion of children with disabilities aged 6 to 21 who were educated in regular classrooms rose from 32 to 45 percent.

Non-English-speaking students

Since the 1980s, a wave of Asian and Hispanic immigrants has transformed the demographics of U.S. primary and secondary schools. The Bureau of the Census estimated that by 1990 there were more than 2.3 million immigrant youth in U.S. schools and colleges, comprising about 5 percent of all students. Approximately 25 percent of immigrants come from countries where English is the dominant or official language, and another 20 percent come from Spanish-speaking countries.

Immigration in the United States differs from that of most other industrial countries in that it is not the legacy of a colonial era. Immigrants are typically poor, and many have suffered the traumas of economic deprivation or civil strife in their native countries. Like their predecessors in earlier periods, most immigrants are concentrated in a few large cities, such as Los Angeles, Miami, and New York City, and 45 percent of immigrant students who have been in the United States for three years or less are enrolled in California schools.

3. Improvement in learning achievement

Long-term trends in student achievement in the United States are difficult to describe because relatively few "then and now" comparisons were carried out until the late 1960s. Since then, however, substantial data have become available, most notably those of the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.

NAEP was established in 1969 to monitor academic achievement in core academic subjects through the sampling of students aged 9, 13, and 17. For political reasons, assessment findings were restricted initially to the national level and to large subsections, such as urban vs. rural or by regions of the country. Only in 1990, with the emergence of a movement to promote standards in education, was NAEP allowed to publish scores showing how students fared in various states. The sample design still does not permit comparisons of smaller subsets, such as districts or schools, although some districts have given the tests on their own in order to make such comparisons.

Although NAEP results have become generally accepted among educators and political leaders as a reliable barometer of average pupil academic performance over time, the question of how to define an acceptable level of performance remains controversial. NAEP has developed definitions of what constitutes "basic," "proficient," and "advanced" performance in various core subjects and has released data on the proportion of students achieving at each of these levels. The NAEP definitions, however, have been criticized by many scholars on technical and other grounds.

While experts may differ about how to define adequate levels of performance, widespread agreement has emerged over the need to think about pupil performance in terms of a "range" of knowledge and skills. Levels of performance that once ensured that a pupil would qualify for a good job in the past may or may not be sufficient to make him or her competitive in the emerging information-based economy. As we shall see in a moment, it is quite possible for a country such as the United States to successfully raise average levels of achievement while doing little to increase the number or proportion of students achieving at more sophisticated levels.

One might expect to see a decline in overall achievement as access rates approach universal status. Such a decline did in fact occur during the 1960s and 1970s in average scores on the SAT, a college admissions test. Since the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT) is taken only by college-bound students, however, patterns in scores on these examinations do not accurately reflect overall achievement trends. In general, trends in student achievement in the United States over recent decades as described by NAEP present a mixed picture.

Trends in student achievement

Overall NAEP trends since 1970 show declines or relative stability in math and science in the early 1970s, followed by improvements thereafter. Results in reading and writing are mixed.

Science–The long-term pattern is one of early declines followed by improvement. Among 17-year-olds, for example, the average score on scale of 0 to 500 dropped from 305 in 1970 to 283 in 1982. The average was back up to 290 by 1990 and 296 in 1996—still below the 1970 figure. The 1996 scores for 9- and 13-year- olds are slightly above those from 1970. Seventeen-year-olds improved noticeably between 1990 and 1996, from 290 to 296, while the scores of 9- and 13-year-olds increased slightly.

Mathematics–The long-term trends show overall improvement. The 1996 scores of all three age groups were above those for 1970. During the 1990s, scores of 17-year-olds rose from 305 to 307, those of 13-year-olds from 270 to 274, and those of 9-year-olds from 230 to 231.

Reading–Scores increased in the 1970s and 1980s, but the increases were not sustained in the 1990s, when the scores of 17-year-olds actually fell from 290 in 1990 to 287 in 1996, while those of 9- and 13-year-olds both rose by a percentage point. Nevertheless, all three ages were above 1970 levels. Gains for nine-year-olds are seen as the result of better performance by lowest achievers.

Writing–The overall pattern is one of declining long-term performance. Between 1970 and 1996, the scores of 11th grade students fell from 290 to 283, while those of 8th grade pupils dropped from 267 to 264. The scores of 11th grade students fell during the 1990s, while those of 8th grade students increased. Grade 4 students were the only ones to show long-term increases, from 204 to 207 between 1970 and 1996.

Performance on international comparisons

While it is not clear from NAEP data whether U.S. students are performing better or worse than in the past, a strong case can be made that current students do not perform as well as many of their international counterparts.

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) was the most ambitious comparative study ever conducted. An international team of researchers carried out simultaneous cross-sectional studies for three student populations (roughly grade 4, grade 8, and students in final year of secondary school) and assessed nearly half a million students in 41 countries. TIMSS results, reported in 1995, showed that U.S. students do relatively well in grade 4, where they scored above the 26-nation international average in math and were second only to Korea in science. U.S. 8th graders, however, were below the 41-nation international average in math and only somewhat higher than the international average in science. By grade 12, U.S. students were performing below the international average in both subjects and were among the lowest of the 21 countries, mostly industrialized, that tested students at this grade level.

The 1991 IEA Reading Literacy Study assessed the reading literacy of 4th and 9th grade pupils in 31 countries and looked at performance in the narrative, expository, and documents domains. Overall performance of U.S. students was encouraging. American 4th graders outperformed students in all countries except Finland. Among 9th graders, Finland had the top score, and United States was closely grouped with 15 other nations near the top.

The National Center for Education Statistics constructed a "world average" of 18 countries that are members of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and that participated in the IEA reading study. Against this average, U.S. students performed well. Among 4th graders, 60 percent of U.S. students exceeded the OECD average in the narrative and expository domains, and 70 percent in documents. The comparative advantage of the United States was not as great among 9th graders, where 52 to 55 percent of U.S. students meet or exceed the OECD average.

Results of the IEA international comparisons present a somewhat more optimistic picture than the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) of the reading levels of U.S. students. Scholars have attempted to explain the differences by noting that the two assessments measure different aspects of reading. IEA mainly asks students to recognize details and to make simple inferences and literal interpretations; NAEP requires students to do all these, but also to identify themes, detect the author’s point of view, make larger inferences, support their opinions with citations from the text, and write summaries of the reading selections on the test.

4. Reduction of adult illiteracy rate, especially gender disparities

National education systems are judged not only by the proportions of students who complete specified levels of education but also on the extent to which graduates possess the literacy, numeracy, and other skills necessary to function as workers, citizens, and family members. Because of the growing importance of such skills in the emerging information society, industrial nations mounted a number of efforts in the 1990s aimed at identifying and understanding patterns of adult literacy.

The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), initiated in 1994 by seven governments and three intergovernmental organizations, tested large samples of adults in 12 industrial countries. It examined three types of literacy—prose, document, and quantitative—and measured skills ranging from finding information in a simple text to understanding and using printed materials at home and work. Scores were reported at five levels, with level 3 generally considered the desirable level for individuals to be able to cope in a modern democratic society. At least a quarter of adults in all countries tested performed below the desirable level.

Results showed that the United States compares well with other countries but that its pattern is somewhat polarized. Approximately one-fifth of U.S. adults scored at or above level 4 on all three scales, a figure surpassed only by Sweden. However, the United States also had a disproportionate number of adults scoring at level 1. Only Poland had a greater percentage of adults scoring at this lowest literacy level. Sweden, Germany, and the Netherlands all had significantly smaller proportions of adults scoring at this low level than the United States. Subsequent detailed analysis of the IALS data showed a strong correlation in the United States between parental education and the literacy levels of youth. The performance gap between youth with the least and most parental education in the United States was the equivalent of 15 years of additional schooling.

IALS found the United States is unique in two respects. It is the only country in which men do not outscore women on the document scale, and is also the only country in which adults aged 46 to 55 outscore young people aged 16 to 25. IALS data showed that literacy proficiency has an independent and substantial effect on income in all countries, and that, except for Ireland, this wage premium is larger in the United States than in any of the other participating countries.

5. Expansion of basic education and training in other essential skills

Countries differ in their approach to organizing the transition from school to work. In some, such as Germany and Switzerland, work-study programs are common, while in others, including Belgium and Spain, education and work are rarely associated. As described below, the United States has pursued a middle path in which many students work, though not necessarily in jobs that will lead to permanent employment.

U.S. high schools have traditionally offered three types of academic programs: college preparatory, general, and vocational. In recent years, enrollment in vocational programs has declined compared with the other two categories. Between 1982 and 1992, the proportion of high school seniors who reported being in vocational programs fell from 27 to 12 percent, while the proportion for college preparatory rose from 38 to 43 percent and that for general programs from 35 to 45 percent. Declines in taking the vocational course were evident throughout the vocational curriculum, with the number of credits earned in general labor market preparation, consumer and homemaking education, and occupationally specific education curricula all declining between 1982 and 1992. The composition of course taking within a specific vocational curriculum also shifted away from courses that were part of an organized sequence and toward specialty courses within various fields. NCES interpreted this shift as suggesting that "participation in vocational education at the secondary level may be increasingly diffuse."

Enrollment in vocational tracks varies widely by race and family income. In 1992, 11 percent of white students reported being in such a program, compared with 15 percent of African Americans and 13 percent of Hispanics. Twenty-one percent of students from the low socioeconomic group families were in vocational programs, but only 3 percent of students in the highest quartile and 13 percent of those in the middle two quartiles.

As noted above, preparation for the work force in the United States is by no means limited to formal public schooling. Young people have a broad range of other options at their disposal, including private schools that offer credentials in technical and vocational fields and extensive training programs run by employers.

6. Increased acquisition of knowledge, skills, and values for better living

Schools in the United States have never viewed their mission as limited to the teaching of core academic or vocational subjects. The country’s system of free "common schools" was created in the 19th century not only to produce workers for the emerging industrial economy but to create informed citizens who would share democratic and other values, and the teaching of civics was an important function. From the outset subjects such as home economics, woodworking, physical education, and typing have had a place in school curricula alongside reading, writing and mathematics. Public schools have frequently been enlisted to help deal with social problems, and most secondary schools are involved in activities ranging from preparing students to get their driver’s license to drug education programs.

As with preparation for the workforce, young people in the United States are exposed to numerous sources of information outside of school related to practical living. Television, radio, films, and other electronic media are powerful forces in conveying information about topics ranging from health and physical fitness to tips on how to manage personal finances. Within the last two years young people have become adept at using the Internet as a tool to obtain information on everything from the lowest price for a popular CD to information about various colleges and universities.

One important trend in the 1990s has been an increase in the number of students who volunteer time for community service, such as tutoring disadvantaged pupils or visiting in retirement homes. Some high schools have made such service a graduation requirement, while many more have organized volunteer opportunities for students as a way of developing positive civic, social and personal values. The term "service learning" has emerged to describe programs that build community service into the school curriculum, thus combining active engagement in meeting social needs with academic reflection on the experience. A University of Minnesota study estimated that the proportion of U.S. high school students participating in service learning projects rose from 2 percent in 1984 to nearly 25 percent in 1997.


The 1990s were a time of enormous vibrancy and change for education in the United States. A number of important trends emerged or became more visible and well-defined during the decade. Education secured its position as the major domestic political issue of the day, and policy makers found themselves engaged in major policy debates over topics ranging from curriculum content and computers in the classroom to vouchers and other new educational delivery systems.

The educational experiences of American educators, political leaders, academics, parents, and others during the 1990s obviously reflect the particular culture, history, and educational system of the United States. Many of these experiences, however, are related, directly or indirectly, to the struggle to realize Education for All in other countries, developed and developing alike. The following section considers some of these experiences.

1. Standards-based reform and the pursuit of quality

In September 1989, President George Bush convened the governors of the 50 U.S. states in Charlottesville, Virginia, for an Education Summit aimed at defining a set of "national goals" for primary and secondary education in the United States. Six months later, the World Conference on Education for All took place in Jomtien, Thailand with the aim of rallying the nations of the world in pursuit of universal basic education.

The two events had quite different agendas and involved quite different casts, but the fact that they occurred virtually simultaneously was by no means coincidental. Both gatherings reflected the growing recognition among national educational and political leaders at the time that the laying out of explicit expectations is central to school improvement. Both produced a specific set of educational goals to be achieved by the year 2000.

The Charlottesville Summit drafted a set of national goals for American schools and established a National Education Goals Panel to monitor progress toward them. The goals ranged from student achievement targets to the aspiration that every U.S. school will be "free of drugs, violence and the unauthorized presence of firearms and alcohol." Most were highly ambitious, including the goal that U.S. students would be "first in the world in mathematics and science achievement."

Progress toward the goals has been mixed at best. The country is closer to the goal that "all children in America will start school ready to learn," in part because more two-year-olds are being immunized against preventable childhood diseases, and more parents are now reading to their children. On the other hand, the overall high school completion rate is no higher than it was in 1990. As noted above, U.S. 4th graders do fairly well in mathematics and science, but by the time they graduate from high school, U.S. students are nowhere near being "first in the world" in either subject.

Even though none of the National Goals for Education has been met, the very process of achieving consensus around a set of objectives turned out have a profound impact on United States education. The Charlottesville Summit gave visibility and credibility to the benefits of setting ambitious goals, and it helped set the stage for the "standards-based" reform movement that was to become the defining educational movement of the 1990s in the United States.

The U.S. concept of academic "standards" is unusual. Most countries have national curricula and even national examinations, and there is little doubt in most people’s minds about what students should know and be able to do as they move up the educational ladder. In the United States, however, education is managed at the state and local levels, and expectations about what students should learn and how well they should learn it vary widely across the country. Thus, the very concept of designing and agreeing on a set of learning outcomes across traditional jurisdictional lines is new and, in the minds of many, unsettling and undesirable.

Academic standards in the United States also differ in another important respect. Whereas the national education systems in most countries focus almost entirely on cognitive outcomes, U.S. political and educational leaders tend to speak about what students need to "know and be able to do." Thus considerable attention is paid to skills such as reading, writing, and calculating as well as to cognitive knowledge.

The growing emphasis on standards in the United States can be thought of in two ways. In the broadest sense, it reflects the growing focus on educational quality. As in other nations, there is a growing recognition in the United States that issues of access cannot be separated from concerns about the quality of the teaching and learning to which students are gaining access. Standards legitimize the setting of explicit objectives toward which students, teachers, and whole schools can strive. They embody goals that are not only ambitious, but gain credibility by the fact that they reflect a broad consensus.

Given the fact that the United States has a relatively decentralized educational system, it comes as no surprise that standards have emerged as much from the bottom up as from the top down. The locus of most standards-setting initiatives has been the individual states, which have borrowed widely from each other, rather than the federal government. To be sure, it can be argued that standards in particular subject areas reflect a "national" consensus among educational professionals. The most obvious example of this is the set of mathematics standards first put forward in the early 1990s by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Officials of the U.S. Department of Education, as well as presidents Bush and Clinton, have applauded the emergence of standards at the state level and in the various subject areas, but they understand that any suggestion that these were being imposed by Washington would unleash a political backlash.

In a narrow sense, the concept of standards has become the basis for a particular approach to school improvement. "Standards-based reform" uses a strategy of coordinating goals, instruction, and assessment. Goals are set by the state or other educational authority, and teachers and school administrators are expected to devise appropriate methods for attaining these goals. Students and educators alike are then held accountable for doing so. To make the system work, states have gone to elaborate lengths to "align" the content of textbooks, instructional manuals, and assessment devices.

The accountability provisions of standards-based reform in the United States are for the most part enforced by testing. The United States has always relied more on standardized, especially multiple-choice, tests than other industrial countries, and such reliance has intensified in recent years. The need to measure student achievement against standards has led to the development of highly sophisticated new "value-added" testing techniques. In North Carolina, for example, every primary and secondary student is tested in each core academic subject each year, and the results are compared with those of the previous year. Schools are then graded not by average tests scores but by aggregated data on how much they have enhanced the learning of each of their students. In many districts, test scores are used as a basis for "school report cards" that are published in local newspapers. State or city takeovers of "failing schools" are also becoming increasingly common.

Within the last year a number of cities and states have retreated somewhat from setting high standards and enforcing them with "high stakes" tests. School officials in Los Angeles, for example, relaxed a policy that would have required students to repeat certain grades if they failed to pass end-of-year tests. The officials calculated that as many as half of the district’s more than 700,000 students would be retained. Arizona, Massachusetts, and Virginia are also re-examining such policies.

The emergence of standards-based reform reflects a number of significant educational trends. Chief among them is the shift from the traditional focus on inputs to a concern for outcomes. The standards-based approach to school reform begins by looking at the goals that policy makers seek to accomplish and then works backward to design ways of reaching these goals. The emphasis on new forms of assessments can be seen as a function of the need to measure progress toward the new and more explicit goals of education, but it also works the other way. Growing dissatisfaction with the shortcomings of multiple-choice tests contributed in a major way to public acceptance of the need for explicit standards. Finally, as already noted, standards-based reform represents an affirmation of the notion that, in and of itself, enhanced access is of little value. Only quality education is worth fighting for.

The standards movement has produced a number of important spin-off effects:

More rigorous courses. Secondary education in the United States is unusual in that students typically have considerable latitude in selecting which subjects they study and at what level of difficulty. A number of studies have shown that, in recent years, U.S. high school students are opting for more rigorous academic courses than they did in the past. One indication of this trend is student interest in the Advanced Placement (AP) courses offered by the College Board. These are college-level courses offered in high schools, and students who do well on the examinations at the end of each course can qualify for college credits. As shown in Figure 9, enrollment in AP courses and the taking of such exams essentially doubled between 1991 and 1999.

NAEP data confirm the trend toward more rigorous courses. For example, 17-year-olds in 1996 were more likely than those in 1986 to report having taken biology and chemistry, although there was no change in the percentage taking physics. Thirteen-year-olds in 1996 were taking more pre-algebra and less regular math.

Standards for teachers. Concern about standards for students has led to greater discussion of standards for teachers. In 1996, the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future issued a scathing indictment of the country’s systems for training and inducting new teachers and for continuing professional development of those already in classrooms.

For the last 12 years, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which operates with private, foundation, and federal funds, has been working to build a system of voluntary national certification for outstanding teachers. The project has developed professional standards for teaching various subjects at various grade levels. Teachers seeking "board certification" in their specialty must clear a number of hurdles, from subject matter tests to evaluation of classroom performances. Nearly 2,000 U.S. teachers have already been certified, and the goal is to increase that number to 100,000 by 2006.

The "new basics." It is not surprising that emphasis on academic standards that has dominated U.S. educational debate for the last decade has produced heated discussions about curricular content and the push for a broader definition of educational quality.

Everyone agrees that a rich basic education is necessary to be a functioning worker, citizen, and family member in today’s society. As Wadi D. Haddad put it in a recent paper, "To be deprived of basic education is to be deprived of the essential tools for modern living. Without the skills to participate in a literate, technological world and the knowledge to transform their environment, people will remain on the margins of society, and society itself will lose their potential contributions." Virtually everyone also agrees that providing an adequate basic education means raising both floors and ceilings. Knowledge and skills previously obtained by a portion of students have now become minimal requirements for all students, and learning goals for superior students are now more complex and sophisticated than ever before.

Much of the debate over content focuses on the relevance of traditional curricula. Many educators argue that content that was suitable for an industrial age is no longer adequate for today’s information society. Whereas schools used to be able to equip students with the knowledge and skills that would serve them for a working lifetime, this is no longer possible in a workplace characterized by continuous change in a competitive global environment. Robert W. Galvin, chairman of Motorola, wrote that at his company "the most critical skill required by the workforce is an ability to learn and keep learning."

Economists Richard Murnane and Frank Levy argue that the new basics include both hard and soft skills. Hard skills are "basic mathematics, problem-solving and reading abilities at levels much higher than many high school graduates now attain." Soft skills include "the ability to work in groups and to make effective oral and written presentations" as well as "the ability to use personal computers to carry out simple tasks like word processing."

A certain tension exists between proponents of "new basics" and the standards movement narrowly conceived. Critics of standards-based reform argue that, in seeking to raise student achievement in core academic subjects as measured by the new assessments, teachers and school administrators have narrowed the curriculum at the expense of artistic, affective, and other "non-core" subjects. Ways must be found, they argue, to teach and assess a wider range of outcomes.

Openness to international comparisons. Another side effect of the standards movement in the United States has been greater attention to educational achievement levels in other countries.

Although the United States has traditionally taken part in the major international comparative studies of student achievement, the results have tended to attract little attention domestically. As the standards movement gained strength in the early 1990s, however, educational and political leaders at the state, district, and even school levels began to show greater interest in how other countries defined academic quality and how U.S. students fared in relation to their peers in other nations.

The Third International Mathematics and Science Survey represented something of a watershed in this regard. Not only did U.S. educators play a leading role in designing and carrying out the study, but the results, which showed U.S. high school students lagging behind those in other industrial countries, attracted widespread attention in the news media and in educational circles.

In another growing sign of interest in educational developments around the world, the Council on Basic Education has taken the lead on a major international effort using student work to illustrate teaching practices in nine nations, assist countries in benchmarking their own teaching against that of other countries, and share effective teaching techniques across national borders.

Consciousness is thus growing among U.S. educators that, in the words of Haddad, "education institutions cannot be treated anymore as protected industries." Educational outcomes must now meet not only national but international standards.

2. The Struggle for equity

Despite relatively strong overall numbers on the six target dimensions, the U.S. educational system is still characterized by continuing, and in some cases growing, disparities among various subsets of students in the distribution of educational resources and in student persistence and achievement.

As in virtually every other country, academic achievement in the United States correlates closely with socioeconomic status. Other inequities relate to the racial and ethnic background of students, gender, geography, mother tongue, and immigrant status. Equitable funding of primary and secondary education is also an issue.

The struggle to make the provision of basic education in the United States more equitable has been an important domestic political issue since the civil rights and anti-poverty movements of the 1960s, and it was reinforced by a school finance reform movement that emerged in the early 1970s. Likewise, the standards-based reform movement of the 1990s has highlighted and given new urgency to the problems of students who are not being well served by the current education system and are thus at risk of failing to meet new, higher standards in the future.

Rather than rely on a "trickle-down" approach to reducing inequity, political and educational leaders in the United States have adopted a strategy of targeting specific groups of students and mounting programs tailored to their needs. Through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act the federal government channels nearly $8 billion annually into programs aimed at economically disadvantaged children. Hundreds of districts have created specialized "magnet" schools as a way to cut down on racial segregation in their schools. Numerous federal and state programs have been mounted for disabled students, and programs are frequently organized for purposes such as increasing the performance of girls in math and science. Practitioners and researchers vigorously debate which targeted programs are effective with particular groups of students and which are not.

Following is a discussion of some of the equity concerns related to basic education in the United States.

Socioeconomic status

Researchers in virtually all countries have identified strong correlations between various educational outcomes and socioeconomic status (SES) as measured by factors such as family income and parental education. The United States is no exception, and inequities can be observed in three important areas:

Preprimary enrollment. As parents’ educational attainment increases, so do the preprimary enrollment rates of their three- and four-year-old children. Among three-year-olds, for example, 35 percent of those whose parents had only a high school diploma or took the General Educational Development (GED) high school equivalency exam were enrolled in 1996, compared with 62 percent of those whose parents had a bachelor’s degree. For four-year-olds, the comparable figures were 54 percent and 70 percent. By the time children reach kindergarten age, however, the gaps disappear. Ninety-three percent of five-year-olds whose parents had only a high school education were enrolled, compared with 94 percent for those whose parents had bachelor’s degrees.

As shown in Table 1, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) also reports that three- and four-year olds from families with annual incomes of more than $50,000 were more likely than those from families with incomes below that figure to be enrolled in preprimary programs. For five-year-olds the gaps are much narrower, with 96 percent of children from families with incomes above $50,000 enrolled compared with a rate of 91 to 92 percent for children from famlies in lower categories.

Persistence in school. Data on the extent to which students drop out of school before receiving a high school diploma also correlate with measures of family income and parental education. In 1997, students in grades 10 to 12 from low-income families dropped out at an annual rate of 12.3 percent. The comparable figures were 4.1 percent for pupils in middle-income families and 1.8 percent for those in families with high incomes. The long-term trends for all three income categories, however, show somewhat decreasing event dropout rates.

In 1997, students whose parents did not complete high school dropped out at a rate of 12 percent, whereas the rate for those with parents who have a bachelor’s degree was only 3 percent.

Achievement. The National Assessment of Educational Progress does not report data on the family income of test takers. Beginning with the Coleman Report in the mid-1960s, however, numerous studies have shown a correlation between SES and student achievement in the United States. The argument is that students with home backgrounds that deprive them of economic, social, and health "capital" arrive at school less ready to learn than their more privileged peers.

The 1990s brought some indications of achievement gains among students in high-poverty schools, defined as those in which at least 75 percent of students come from low-income homes. Such evidence comes from studies of the effects of Title I, the largest federal education program aimed at disadvantaged students. Title I was re-authorized in 1994, and new policies were adopted linking the program to standards-driven reform. Since re-authorization, the National Assessment of Title I has examined trends in performance of students in highest-poverty public schools and the progress of the lowest-achieving students generally, and researchers have found "positive gains in reading and math performance." Specific findings include the following:

Reading–Since 1992, national reading trend results have improved by eight points, or nearly one grade level, for nine-year-olds in the highest-poverty public schools. This improvement, which regained ground lost in the late 1980s, was caused primarily by gains among the lowest-achieving students.

Math–Performance of nine-year-olds has improved by nine points, or nearly one grade level, especially among students in the highest-poverty schools. Once again, substantial gains among lowest achievers generally was seen as the cause of the overall gains.

Nevertheless, large performance gaps continue to exist between the highest-poverty and other schools. According to the National Assessment of Title I report, "While the performance of students in high-poverty schools is improving, they remain much further behind their peers in meeting basic standards of performance in both reading and math. In 1998, the percent of fourth-grade students in the highest-poverty public schools who met or exceeded the NAEP Basic level in reading was about half the national rate, and progress in reading overall is only back to 1998 and 1990 levels. For math, the percent of students in the highest-poverty schools scoring at or above the Basic level was two-thirds that of the national average."

Race and ethnicity

Considerable progress has been made in the United States in recent decades in narrowing traditional gaps in educational attainment and achievement among the major racial and ethnic groups, and further progress was made in the 1990s. The recent report by the National Research Council declared, "A major accomplishment has been the near parity reached between black and white Americans in educational attainment at the high school level." Nevertheless, some inequities remain, especially among Hispanic Americans.

Preprimary enrollment. Similar percentages of white and African-American three- and four-year-olds are enrolled in center-based programs; indeed, African Americans are enrolled at slightly higher rates than whites. In 1996, the rates for three-year-olds were 50 percent for African Americans and 45 percent for whites, while the rates for four-year-olds were 79 and 65 percent, respectively. Among five-year-olds, 96 percent of African Americans and 92 percent of whites are enrolled in center-based programs or kindergartens.

The picture for Hispanics is less positive. Among this group, only 28 percent of three-year-olds and 49 percent of four-year-olds were enrolled in 1996, and the latter figure is three percentage points lower than it was in 1991. Participation of Hispanic five-year-olds grew from 86 to 90 percent between 1991 and 1996 and is thus comparable to white enrollment.

Persistence in school. Considerable progress has been made in achieving universal access to primary and secondary schooling across racial and ethnic lines. In 1920, 55 percent of African Americans aged 25-29 had five years of elementary education, compared with 87 percent of whites. Only 6 percent of African Americans had four years of high school or more, compared with 22 percent of whites.

By 1980, however, near parity had been achieved at the elementary education level between African Americans and whites, with 100 percent of whites and 99 percent of African Americans in 1997 having five years of elementary school. Progress was also made at the high school level. Between 1990 and 1997, the proportion of whites completing high school rose from 90 to 93 percent, while the corresponding rate among African Americans went from 82 to 87 percent.

Among Hispanics, however, the trends are not as favorable. The proportion of Hispanics with five years of elementary school rose from 93 to 96 percent between 1990 and 1997, while the proportion with a high school diploma increased from 58 to 62 percent–both figures well below those of blacks and whites.

To the extent that dropping out remains a problem, rates correlate powerfully with race and ethnicity. In 1997, the event dropout rate was 3.6 percent for whites, 5.0 percent for African Americans, and 9.5 percent for Hispanics. The same year, the overall status dropout rate was 7.6 percent for whites, 13.4 percent for African Americans, and 25.3 percent for Hispanics.


Achievement. Virtually all measures of academic achievement have shown substantial differences in the performance of African-American and white students in the United States, and these performance differentials have been a source of constant analysis and discussion. The issue was recently summarized by two scholars, Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips, in an important book on the subject. They wrote: "African Americans currently score lower than European Americans on vocabulary, reading, and mathematics tests, as well as on tests that claim to measure scholastic aptitude and intelligence. This gap appears before children enter kindergarten, and it persists into adulthood. It has narrowed since 1970, but the typical American black still scores below 75 percent of American whites on most standardized tests. On some tests the typical American black scores below more than 85 percent of whites." Black-white achievement differentials persist even when the data are controlled for measures of socioeconomic status.

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