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Book Review: Education Myths: What Special-Interest Groups Want You to Believe About Our Schools and Why it Isn’t So

Education Myths: What Special-Interest Groups Want You to Believe About Our Schools and Why it Isn’t So

Jay P. Greene
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005

Education policy, says Jay P. Greene, is dominated by myths. Myths aren’t lies. They’re intuitive, they seem to be true, and we want them to be true. There is probably some evidence supporting the myth. But if the myth isn’t true, if it isn’t accurate, and we make policy decisions based on the myth, we create disastrous results. As important and expensive as public education is, this means we need to examine myths and discard those that don’t truthfully describe the world.

Subscribing to many of these myths benefits groups other than schoolchildren. These special interests that benefit from sustaining these myths are politically powerful. Those with the least power — the schoolchildren — don’t count for much at all.

The myths:

1. The Money Myth. “Schools perform poorly because they need more money.” The reality is that spending on education has been increasing, and increasing rapidly. In 1945 spending per student was $1,214. In 2001, it was $8,745. These figures are adjusted for inflation. In spite of this we are told every year that schools are dangerously underfunded, and if we don’t spend more and more, our children will not even be able to make change from the cash register at McDonald’s when the power goes out.

2. The Special Ed Myth. “Special education programs burden public schools, hindering their academic performance.” This myth says that we must spend so much on education because more students are being classified as needing special education, and this education is very expensive. What really has happened, though, is that “the standard for what counts as a disability has been lowered.” There is also an incentive to classify students as learning disabled, as schools get more money for these students.

3. The Myth of Helplessness. “Social problems like poverty cause students to fail; schools are helpless to prevent it.” But some schools are able to succeed despite disadvantaged students, so success is possible. School choice can help here, as it lets poor students escape schools that would otherwise take them for granted.

4. The Class Size Myth. “Schools should reduce class sizes; small classes would produce bit improvements.” It seems intuitive that smaller classes are better for students. Educators rely on the Tennessee STAR project for proof. But there are many doubts about this project’s findings. It is interesting to note that the participants in this project knew they were being studied, and that if the project were a failure, the small class sizes would not continue. This introduced an element of competition. Also, reducing class size even by small steps is very expensive.

5. The Certification Myth. “Certified or more experienced teachers are substantially more effective.” Good teachers are very important to learning, but there is a lot of research that fails to find that more education leads to teacher success. Curiously, most teachers are paid based on how much education they have, and the way to earn more is to get more education.

6. The Teacher Pay Myth. “Teachers are badly underpaid.” But when considered in light of the number of hours worked, teachers are in fact paid quite well, more than accountants.

7. The Myth of Decline. “Schools are performing much worse than they used to.” But most measures, such as NAEP tests and graduation rates, have remained constant over the years.

8. The Graduation Myth. “Nearly all students graduate from high school.” Most states employ methods of counting that let them claim high graduation rates. Greene, however, uses different methods that are more reliable. With these methods, he estimates a nationwide graduation rate of 69 percent for the class of 2000. The National Center for Education Statistics figure is 86.5 percent.

9. The College Access Myth. “Nonacademic barriers prevent a lot of minority students from attending college.” The evidence is that minority students are less likely to meet the qualifications to apply to college.

10. The High Stakes Myth. “The results of high-stakes tests are not credible because they’re distorted by cheating and teaching to the test.” When properly implemented these tests are accurate measures of student performance.

11. The Push-Out Myth. “Exit exams cause more students to drop out of high school.” Evidence says otherwise.

12. The Accountably Buren Myth. “Accountability systems impose large financial burdens on schools.” Schools often exaggerate the costs of administering tests and record keeping. The costs are quite small compared to other reforms.

13. The Inconclusive Research Myth. “The evidence on the effectiveness of vouchers is mixed and inconclusive.” “The highest quality research consistently shows that vouchers have a positive effect for students who receive them. The results are only mixed with regard to the scope and magnitude of vouchers’ benefits. The evidence for these benefits justifies a high level of confidence, especially when compared to the much weaker evidence supporting most major education policies.” “Every one of the eight random-assignment studies finds at least some positive academic effect for students using a voucher to attend a private school.”

14. The Exeter Myth. “Private schools have higher test scores because they have more money and recruit high-performing students while expelling low-performing students. But the facts are that private schools spend much less per student than public schools, and private schools accept almost all students and expel few, compared to the public schools.

15. The Draining Myth. “School choice harms public schools.” Evidence shows, however, that school choice improves the performance of public schools.

16. The Disabled Need Not Apply Myth. “Private schools won’t serve disabled students.” But when vouchers give private schools the same resources as public schools, the private schools provide the needed services, along with better education.

17. The Democratic Values Myth. “Private schools are less effective at promoting tolerance and civic participation.” Again, evidence shows otherwise.

18. The Segregation Myth. “Private schools are more racially segregated than public schools.” “The bulk of those studies find that parental choice in education contributes to racial integration rather than promoting segregation.”

When considering these myths, the author sees a pattern called the “meta-myth.” This myth says that education is different from almost everything else in that in education, behavior doesn’t respond to the same types of incentives that almost everything else in life responds to. We want to believe that the education of children is special, and that usual rules don’t apply. But that is false.

This is a very well researched book that will help anyone interested in education policy understand schools and what works to increase positive outcomes for students. I think that members of the education establishment, that is the teachers unions, schools administrators, school board members, and politicians interested in the status quo, will not enjoy reading this book.

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