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Brown University graduates pass through the Van Winkle Gates during the procession before commencement ceremonies in Providence, R.I., Sunday, May 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)


The United States does not have a national school system. Nor, with the exception of the military academies, are these schools run by the federal government.

American education is a complex topic because a single school can draw upon resources from several different public and private institutions. For example, a student may attend a private high school whose curriculum must meet standards set by the state, some of whose science courses may be financed by federal funds, and whose sports teams may play on local, publicly owned fields.

Education is an aspect of U.S. society that is more open, more diverse and more inclusive than ever before in our history. Public education is changing for the better. On the other hand, there is much more to be done to fulfill the American promise of equal opportunity for all and to close the gaps between rich and poor, white and non-white. By continuing to adapt and improve our system of education, the United States can become a stronger nation and continue to work with other nations to bring peace, prosperity and education to citizens throughout the world.

“The Condition of Education 2000,” the U.S. Department of Education annual report, pinpointed evidence that current policies and programs are on the right track. Other indicators highlight areas that policymakers and educators need to address so our nation can continue to grow and prosper in the Information Age.

The report found that the benefits of attending college are greater today than ever before. In 1970, the average young American male with a bachelor’s degree had an income 24 percent higher than that of one possessing merely a high school diploma. As of 1998, the “college bonus” for men had risen to 56 percent. For young American women, the “college bonus” rose from 82 percent in 1970 to 100 percent in 1998. That means that young women in the United States who graduated from college earned twice as much as their female peers who never attended college. In addition, more students are going directly from high school to college.

Between 1992 and 1998 alone, that percentage rose from 62 percent to 66 percent. But the rates are lower for students from low-income families. Our research has found that providing academic preparation and encouragement can help to close this gap. To get on the path to college, students need to take rigorous high school courses in mathematics and science, and gateway courses in middle school — that is, from grades six through eight. These findings offer strong evidence for two courses of action: to provide financial aid for students attending college, and to help disadvantaged children in their early teens think about and prepare for college.

Today, many more students in the United States are taking rigorous science and math courses that prepare them for college than in years past. In 1982, 11 percent of high school graduates completed courses like trigonometry, pre-calculus and calculus. By 1998, 27 percent had completed that type of advanced coursework. Over the same period, the percentage taking advanced science courses rose from 31 percent to 60 percent.

The Condition of Education 2000 also includes research on younger students. It notes that 66 percent of children entering kindergarten can recognize letters of the alphabet. That means most are ready to begin the process of learning to read, but one-third are not. We can raise this number by providing effective pre-school programs for more children and by encouraging parents to read with their children. While we are encouraged by the results, we are also working to increase our efforts to support and expand early childhood learning and parental involvement.

The student population in our public schools is not only growing but also changing. Hispanic enrollment increased from six percent in 1972 to 15 percent in 1998. With significant increases in the number of students who may not speak English at home, this report suggests that we need to be prepared to help students with limited English proficiency to succeed in school.