EDUCATION MYTHS: WHAT SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS WANT YOU TO BELIEVE
ABOUT OUR SCHOOLS — AND WHY IT ISN’T SO
By Jay P. Greene
Rowman and Littlefield, $24.95, 225 pages
REVIEWED BY MARTIN MORSE WOOSTER
The debates about our public schools are as contentious as ever. But in the clamor over education reform, education researchers are rarely heard from. There are lots of education journals out there, and education researchers are numerous enough to have their own professional association. Yet most education research remains obscure, even when professors produce studies that add to our knowledge on how to improve schools.
There are several reasons why you haven’t heard of most education research. Like far too many social scientists, most education researchers produce jargon-laden prose that a parent, teacher or concerned citizen would find impenetrable. Moreover, education researchers use a great deal of sophisticated mathematical analysis that math-impaired readers find hard to understand.
Because education researchers are rarely heard from, there are a great many myths about our schools that should be refuted but aren’t. In “Education Myths,” Jay P. Greene decisively refutes 18 myths that are routinely taken as facts by pundits and reporters. Mr. Greene is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute (for which I have consulted). Anyone interested in education reform will find Mr. Greene’s book timely and valuable.
Among the myths Mr. Greene refutes in his book are these:
Public schools are “underfunded.” This myth, Mr. Greene writes, is “so omnipresent that most Americans simply accept the truth of the claim unconsciously.” But the National Center for Education Statistics reports that schools are getting more money than ever. Measured in inflation-adjusted dollars, the average public school annually spent $1,214 per student 60 years ago, $4,479 in 1971-72, and $8,745 by 2001-02. And numerous scholars, most notably the Hoover Institution’s Eric Hanushek, have shown that there is no connection between spending on education and student achievement.
Teachers are underpaid. Most people forget that teachers only work nine months a year, and many don’t work an eight-hour day. If teachers worked as many hours as most professionals do, their incomes would be higher. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the average elementary school teacher makes $30.75 an hour, while the typical high school teacher earns $31.01 an hour.
Teachers who accumulate seniority do even better; American Enterprise Institute fellow Frederick Hess reports that between 15 and 20,000 public school teachers make over $100,000 annually.
Better-trained teachers do better in the classroom. There’s very little evidence that the training teachers undergo in any way helps them teach. Urban Institute researcher Dan Goldhaber reports “only about three percent of the contribution teachers made to student learning was associated with teacher experience, degree attained, and other readily available characteristics.” Moreover, there’s some evidence that teacher certification might actually hinder learning, since burned-out senior teachers who have the appropriate credentials grimly hang on until their pensions vest, even though they long ago lost the inspiration to do a good job in the classroom.
Smaller classes produce smarter students. Most of the evidence that smaller classes improve learning comes from the STAR experiment of the 1980s, in which students in Tennessee elementary schools seemed to do better if they were in smaller classes. But the results of the STAR experiment have never been duplicated, leaving its findings problematic. Moreover, class size reduction involves bringing in a huge number of new teachers, many of them unqualified.
In 1996, California implemented a billion-dollar plan to reduce average class size from 24 students to 15. The result: The state teacher payroll ballooned from 62,226 in 1996 to 91,112, and this dramatic expansion of the workforce inevitably resulted in lower-quality teachers being hired.
Private schools aren’t democratic. One of the more potent arguments of the foes of school choice is that students should go to public schools to learn the principles of our democracy. But some researchers have found that private school students are more likely to vote and volunteer than are their public school counterparts. Researchers Patrick Wolf of Georgetown University and David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame have found that students at private schools are more tolerant of people of different faiths than comparable public school students.
Private school students do better on tests because they go to wealthy schools.
But most private school students don’t go to Exeter, Choate or St. Albans. They attend inner-city Catholic schools that spend about half as much as public schools do, but whose students do better on tests than do public school students.
Mr. Greene exposes many more myths in his fine book, including myths about school choice, special education and the No Child Left Behind Act. Many of these myths (particularly those involving spending) should have been exposed long ago. Mr. Greene’s important book ensures that these potent education myths have been decisively refuted.
Martin Morse Wooster is the author of “Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds.”