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U.S. Department of Education
MARK TWAIN observed that “it’s not what you don’t know that kills you, it’s what you know for sure that ain’t true.” After 15 years doing fieldwork in more than 100 public schools and interviewing more than 1,000 students, parents, and educators, we’re convinced that no area is more fraught with myths and misconceptions than education policy, especially during election seasons like this one. Indeed our friend Jay Greene wrote a whole book, “Education Myths,” devoted to debunking them.
With apologies to Jay, here are our own favorite myths about public education.
1. The Cutback Myth. Most Americans believe that their public schools are underfunded, and struggling to get by on declining resources. Certainly among 14,000 school districts and roughly 100,000 public schools some are under-resourced, but on the whole this is simply not true. In constant dollars, education spending rose from $1,214 in 1945 to just under $10,500 in 2008. The St. Louis public schools, for example, spend more than $14,000 per student per year, so if it has problems, money is not one of them. What’s far more important is how that money is spent.
2. More money means better schools. While expenditures have been increasing over the past several decades, performance has not. The National Assessment of Educational Progress has been given to a representative sample of U.S. students since the early 1970s, and the results have been basically flat. Similarly, the graduation rate for students has remained stagnant, as well, at about 75 percent nationwide. While some might argue that students today are somehow more expensive to educate, it should be noted that in this time period, rates of child poverty have declined and, in theory, technological advances should have been able to automate and thus decrease the price of some of the processes of schooling.
3. Our schools are going to hell in a handbasket. While our first two myths tend to be embraced by dour, grumpy liberals, this one is usually favored by dour, grumpy conservatives. The myth that you just can’t teach young folks nowadays has been around for millenia. Luckily, we now have the measures to show it just isn’t so. While the relatively flat NAEP scores are disheartening from an efficiency standpoint, they do tell us that our schools aren’t getting any worse.
4. School choice is a panacea for the ills of the public education system. When charter schools and private school tuition vouchers were first envisioned, more than one observer thought that they would be the silver bullet that would solve all the problems of the intransigent and unresponsive public-school system. Well, our world is a bit more stubborn than that. Charter schools and private-school vouchers simply establish the conditions under which innovation can take place. Once that marketplace is put in place, organizations and institutions need to work to both ensure quality and educate parents to be more informed school shoppers if we want them to succeed.
5. Schools don’t matter. This is perhaps the most insidious and dangerous myth surrounding public schooling today. Intellectuals and pundits alike repeatedly opine that public schools cannot possibly educate disadvantaged children until all the ills of society are cured. “It’s poverty, stupid!” the familiar refrain repeats.
This is simply not accurate. We know, as a result of the measurements imposed by No Child Left Behind, that there are hundreds of schools across the country that are succeeding in educating poor students – charter schools, private schools, traditional public schools. And, if you ask them how they do it, as we asked the leader of one of the most successful systems of charter schools in America, they’ll say, “good teaching, and more of it.”
This is not to say that poverty does not play a major role and that broken homes and dangerous neighborhoods do not present serious hurdles that students need to overcome in order to learn. What it does tell us is that those hurdles are not insurmountable.
In short, the tide is turning in American public education. We are fostering innovation and rewarding excellence more today than we ever have before. But if we want to accelerate that growth, we need to abandon the myths and embrace the facts. Our children deserve no less.
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President Obama and Education Reform
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