Wednesday, October 13, 2010

8 Delusions About Education

Like most parents, I want my child to get the best education possible. Like many parents, I am scared, but not for the usual, reasons like bad teachers, low standards, lack of accountability, greedy unions, or a system broken beyond repair. These are gross exaggerations. What I fear is that the fun and innocence of childhood is being traded in for the false promises of rigor and accountability. Many kindergartens have replaced story-time and recess with rote test-taking drills. Elementary schools are eliminating science to make room for more test prep. Middle schools have eliminated shop classes because they aren’t academically rigorous. Over the past 30 years, we have fundamentally altered public education because we were told it wasn’t working. We were told that testing would improve school accountability and student achievement, yet increasing numbers of schools are failing. If we want to see real improvements in education, we need to first cut through the lies and delusions that dominate the debate.

Delusion #1: Schools today are in crisis—Public Education is Broken:
Teaching standards today are more rigorous than ever. Teachers are much better prepared for working with diverse populations. The consensus in education has shifted from one that supported tracking students into advanced or remedial courses based on socioeconomic status (SES) and race to one that promotes equity for all students. So where did we get the idea that public education is so terribly broken?

In 1983, President Reagan’s Commission on Excellence in Education published “A Nation at Risk,” which falsely claimed that our schools were so terrible that it threatened national security. This myth, that the education system is broken, has been perpetuated ever since by politicians of both persuasions and their corporate supporters, terrifying parents, who worry that their children will languish intellectually, and taxpayers, who fear that today’s poorly educated students will be tomorrow’s incompetent doctors and police. Education bashing has become the baby-kissing of the new millennium. Everyone wants to be the “education” candidate, the hero who saves our children.

The problem with “A Nation at Risk” is that it wasn’t true. In 1990, Sandia National Laboratory wrote “Perspectives on education in America,” which concluded there was no crisis. Bush Sr. immediately suppressed the report, as it conflicted with his education agenda. According to the report, average SAT scores went up or held steady for every student subgroup from 1975 to 1988. Reading held steady or improved among all groups from 1971 to 1988. Every year from 1970 to 1988, the number of 22 year-olds with bachelor degrees increased. In 1988, the U.S. led all developed nations in bachelor degrees earned. Students scoring 3 or higher on AP tests rose from 10.2% in 2000 to 14.8% in 2006, while the number attempting AP tests rose from 15.9% in 2000 to 24.2% in 2006.
Delusion #2: Bad Schools and Teachers Cause the Achievement Gap
Public education is not in crisis, but a class-based achievement gap does persist. Middle class students consistently outscore lower income students on standardized tests and graduate at higher rates. However, the achievement gap is already firmly in place before children have even started school. Burkam and Lee examined average cognitive scores of children entering kindergarten and found that kids in the highest income group scored 60% higher than those in the lowest income group. Hart and Risely found similar class-based differences in language development and IQ among children as young as three.

Class can have an enormous impact on how we raise our children and influence school readiness. Hart and Risely found dramatic class differences in the number and complexity of words spoken to young children. By the time they have reached kindergarten, children from families on welfare may have heard 32 million fewer words than children from professional families.

Poverty contributes to a host of physical and cognitive problems that can diminish academic achievement. Poor children are more likely to suffer low birth weights and malnutrition, which can lead to disabilities. Iron-deficiency anemia, which impairs cognitive ability, is twice as common among poor children. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 10% of poor students have dangerous levels of lead in their blood, which can lead to decreased intelligence. Lack of healthcare causes poor children to be absent as much as 40% more often than middle class kids, according to education researcher Richard Rothstein. In a study of Baltimore school children, high school drop-outs averaged 27.6 absences per year, while graduates averaged only 11.8. Poor children move more due to financial insecurity. According to the Educational Testing Service, 41% of students who changed schools frequently were below grade level in reading and 33% were below grade level in math, compared to 26% and 17%, respectively, for those who remained at the same schools.

Delusion #3: No Child Left behind will ensure that all children are succeeding by 2014
This slogan sounds great, but it is impossible to deliver. Instead of improving schools, NCLB is having the opposite effect: increasing numbers of schools are failing. The state of California projected that by the 2013-2014 school year, when all students are supposed to be proficient, 99% of California schools will be failing. The reasons for this paradox are built into the rules of NCLB which require that all subgroups (e.g., ethnicity, socio-economic status, special education, English Language Learners) must meet their Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) each year. If any one group fails, the entire school fails.

Delusion #4: Obama is dismantling NCLB
Obama wants to modify NCLB, not end it. He wants to include graduation rates, attendance and learning climate when judging schools. He also wants to replace the provision that every child must reach proficiency with the goal that all students graduate from high school “prepared” for college. Schools and students will still compete with each other. There will continue to be winners, losers and high stakes exams. “Proficiency” and “progress” will be just as elusive. Nothing will be put into place to help low income families. In addition to keeping NCLB, he has introduced Race to the Top (RTTT), which provides $4.3 billion in competitive grants to states that facilitate the creation of charter and for-profit schools and that evaluate teachers based on their students’ test scores.

Delusion #5: Testing & Standards Improve Schools & Make Teachers Accountable
Accountability is a red herring, a distraction from the most serious problems affecting public education: underfunding and poverty. It also a big giveaway to test publishers. While testing makes these companies a lot of money, it does nothing to improve accountability or quality. At best, a good test tells us what a student knows, not how she learned it. More importantly, test scores correlate more strongly with social class than any other variable, including teacher quality, curriculum or school structure. 76% of schools with low pass rates on the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) had at least 50% of their students receiving free or reduced lunches. Similarly, 66% of California high schools with low graduation rates had at least 40% of their students on free or reduced lunch, while 80% of high schools with high graduation rates had less than 20% of their students on free or reduced lunch. A more effective means of improving test scores and student achievement would be to improve familial financial security.

Teachers are already held accountable. They are evaluated regularly by administrators and, if judged poorly, can be fired or required to undergo professional development. In California, these evaluations are based on state standards that are among the toughest in the U.S. They assess much more than student achievement, like how well teachers communicate with parents and students, create safe and effective learning environments, and meet the needs of diverse students. A good teacher does all these things, but may still have high failure rates on standardized exams if working with economically disadvantaged students.

Delusion #6: The problem with Public Education is that it is run by the government
This statement is the most honest criticism made by opponents of public education. Public schools are free and one of the few areas of the economy under direct community control. Parents and employees have considerably more influence over how their schools are run than they do over their local Walmart or McDonalds, at least they did before NCLB. By bashing public education, critics hope to weaken unions and divert public funds to private, for-profit education businesses. Multibillion dollar foundations like Gates, Broad and Walton Family Foundations have pumped millions into the creation of charter schools. Gates even provided funding to states to hire consultants to write RTTT grants to help them to create more charter schools. Charter school organizers make $400,000 per year (compared with teachers, who make $30-80,000 per year).

Big Government is a compelling target, particularly when accused of trampling individual rights and freedom. However, for the wealthy, every attack on big government is an opportunity to lower their tax liability and increase their personal wealth. Tax cuts for the wealthy often lead to education cuts. However, even without tax cuts, the wealthy benefit when money is diverted from social programs like education, that benefit everyone, to entitlements like farm or oil subsidies, that benefit a small, elite group. Furthermore, when government programs are made to seem inept and wasteful, the corporate alternative starts to look appealing, facilitating the transfer of wealth from tax payers to private business.

Delusion 7: Charter Schools are More Effective Than Traditional Public Schools
Charter schools perform no better than traditional public schools and often do much worse. In 2004, the U.S. department of education found that 4th graders in charter schools did significantly worse in reading and math than those in public school. Charter schools also tend to be much more segregated. Nearly 80% of Latino and 70% of black charter school students are in schools that are over 90% minority, nearly double the rate in traditional public schools. In 2007, public school enrollment was 47% white, 22% black, 21% Hispanic and 3% Asian. Private, religious school enrollment was 73% white, 9% black, 12% Hispanic, 3% Asian, while private, secular school enrollment was: 69% white, 11% black, 9% Hispanic, and 6% Asian. Poor students make up 40% of public schools, but only 17% of private religious and 10% of private secular schools.

Delusion #8: Teachers unions protect bad teachers and block parental choice.
This delusion implies that there are great numbers of rotten teachers in need of discipline or dismissal, which is simply untrue. Unions do provide legal services for members accused of misconduct. It is important to note that in the contentious school environment, there are often frivolous accusations made against teachers, who are entitled to representation and defense. Most unions provide peer evaluation and support to help struggling teachers grow professionally. Unions also support beginning teacher mentor programs and professional development, both of which have declined dramatically due to budget cuts, not union obstructionism. Unions support tenure because it is a necessary prerequisite for authentic collaboration between teachers and administrators. Schools cannot function without open, honest input and criticism by those who work with children. Without tenure, teachers can be fired because administrators do not agree with their comments or criticism.

A second problem with this delusion is the assumption that parents get to choose how their taxes are used. Teachers are highly trained professionals who know how to do their job. Can you imagine if people demanded “choice” for their police, fire and public health protection? Parents do have the choice to have their children excused from NCLB testing, and SHOULD, as a form of civil disobedience. If enough parents do this, the charade will have to end.


  1. I agree that schools are taking the fun out of learning and replacing it with test-taking and rote skills. We just got back from a Freshman night in which it seems that to take the courses expected by UC colleges and other "A" schools, the counselor recommended taking 2 science classes concurrently and there didn't seem to even be time to take any non-academic electives. There wasn't time for PE in 11th and 12 grades in the schedule. There was no time for any of the classes that teach how to make for fix something (woodshop, home ec, cooking, ceramics, art, music, auto shop).

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