Condition of education 2006

The National Center for Education Statistics doesn't always do right by its annual "Condition of Education" report (COE), which has sometimes been humdrum and sometimes dizzy from pro-administration spin. But this year Education Statistics commissioner Mark Schneider and his team have produced an uncommonly interesting and, at almost 400 pages, sizable report. It differs from the group's facts-only "Digest of Education Statistics" in that COE points to trends, patterns, and notable changes, thus making it informative, not just informational.

Yes, its value is diminished by the nation's archaic ed statistics apparatus. Even the latest numbers, for example, are nearly always a year or two old (the finance data are typically 3 years old). Moreover, important data is simply unavailable (e.g., the cost and value of teacher benefits); the dropout and graduation definitions remain murky; and Congressional constraints on what can be asked of kids and parents means some information cannot be gathered.

Still, there's much here of value, both for K-12 and higher education, beginning with an excellent (if depressing) summary of comparative international data on academic achievement, which generally show U.S. students reading about as well as their counterparts in other countries but faltering by age 15 in both math and science. (In 4th grade, young Americans do OK across the board.)

These items in the 2006 COE caught my eye:

--Despite much recent ferment about early childhood education, participation in pre-K programs seems to have plateaued over the past 15 years at 50 to 60 percent of 3- through 5-year-olds and remains slightly lower for poor children.

--Total pre-K-12 enrollments are rising slowly, due both to increasing birthrates and to immigration, but it's lumpy across grades and regions. Over the next five years, for example, high school rolls will shrink a bit while the pre-K-8 ranks will grow. And regional differences are significant, with the Northeast and Midwest continuing to lose pupils while the South and West add them. (Surely that helps to explain why battles over things such as charter school caps are so much bloodier in New York, Ohio, and Michigan than in Colorado, Florida, and California, where conventional schools can lose students to charters and still not face declining enrollment overall.)

--Private schools cling to about a 10 percent "market share" as they have for several decades, but the Catholic portion of that continues to shrink (from 55 percent in 1990 to 46 percent in 2004), offset by growth in other religious and secular schools.

--One in five American school children is now Hispanic, but this, too, is really lumpy: less than 7 percent in the Midwest versus 39 percent in the West. Meanwhile, black enrollments are essentially stable at 16 percent. The Hispanic share of K-12 enrollments first exceeded the black share in 2001.

--Seventy percent of black 4th graders are poor (eligible for free/reduced lunch)-and 72 percent of black kids are enrolled in schools where most pupils are poor. For Hispanic 4th graders, both numbers are 73 percent.

--The share of 5- through 17-year-olds who speak a language other than English at home rose steadily from 1979 to 2000, but over the past few years the number seems to have stabilized at 18 to19 percent.

--The number of women enrolled in undergraduate colleges surpassed the number of men for the first time in 1978, and that gap keeps widening. In 2004, colleges had four women students for every three men. In graduate school, it's nearly 3 to 2, and 2005 was the first year that women outnumbered men in professional schools.

--Young Americans continue to have overly optimistic notions of how far they will go in formal education. In 2004, more than two-thirds of 12th graders expected to earn a bachelor's degree or more. (Indeed, more expected to complete graduate/professional school than to stop after undergraduate training.) This included 67 percent of black and 57 percent of Hispanic 12th graders. While immediate college matriculation rates are almost that high (69 percent for white high school grads, 63 percent for blacks, 62 percent for Hispanics), college completion rates are far lower: in 2005, only 29 percent of the 25- through 29-year-old population had bachelor's degrees or higher. Only 18 percent of blacks and 11 percent of Hispanics in that age group held such diplomas. (Note, though, that the latter figures are percentages of the entire age cohort, not of high school graduates.)

--A huge fraction of U.S. school children now attend "schools of choice": more than half of K-12 parents reported in 2003 that they had the "opportunity" to send their kids to a "chosen public school." It appears that 15 percent actually sent them to a "chosen" public school (including charter schools), to which must be added the 10 to 11 percent in private schools, the 1 to 2 percent who are home schooled, and what seems to be 24 percent who moved into their current neighborhood because of the schools. Though there is some duplication in those numbers, it looks to me like a third to a half of U.S. schoolchildren's families are exercising school choice of some sort.

--Class-size data are elusive but it's easy to calculate the student/teacher ratio in U.S. public schools, which has been below 17 to 1 since 1998. Even allowing for special ed, AP physics, and 4th year language classes with 5 kids in them, one may fairly ask why a country with fewer than 17 kids per public-school teacher remains obsessed with class-size reduction. (When I was in fifth grade, the national ratio was about 27:1.)

--Total expenditures per pupil in U.S. public schools reached $9,630 in 2003-up 23 percent in constant dollars over the previous 7 years. At 17 kids per teacher, that translates to almost $164,000 per teacher. Why, then, are teachers not terribly well paid? Because (using the NCES categories) the U.S. spends barely half of its school dollars on "instruction."

And that's just the tip of the COE iceberg. You really should peruse it for yourself. You can find it here.

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