Myths aren't lies. They are beliefs that people adopt because they have an air of plausibility. But myths aren't true, and they often get in the way during serious problem-solving. This essay identifies seven common myths that dominate established views of education these days. Dispelling these misconceptions could open the door to long-awaited improvement in our nation's schools.
The money myth
If people know anything about public schools today, it's that they are strapped for cash. Bestselling books, popular movies, and countless lobbying groups portray urban schools as desperately underfunded, and editors of the New York Times write without fear of contradiction that "providing quality education for all America's children will take...a great deal of money." Bumper stickers declare, "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber." No matter what aspect of education is being debated, activists generally find the solution in more school spending.
This is the most widely held myth about education in America--and the one most directly at odds with the available evidence. Few people are aware that our education spending per pupil has been growing steadily for 50 years. At the end of World War II, public schools in the United States spent a total of $1,214 per student in inflation-adjusted 2002 dollars. By the middle of the 1950s that figure had roughly doubled to $2,345. By 1972 it had almost doubled again, reaching $4,479. And since then, it has doubled a third time, climbing to $8,745 in 2002.
Since the early 1970s, when the federal government launched a standardized exam called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), it has been possible to measure student outcomes in a reliable, objective way. Over that period, inflation-adjusted spending per pupil doubled. So if more money produces better results in schools, we would expect to see significant improvements in test scores during this period. That didn't happen. For twelfth-grade students, who represent the end product of the education system, NAEP scores in math, science, and reading have all remained flat over the past 30 years. And the high school graduation rate hasn't budged. Increased spending did not yield more learning.
This big-picture evidence is strongly confirmed by academic research. Though you'd never know it from the tenor of most education debates, the vast majority of studies have found no sustained positive relationship between spending and classroom results. Economist Eric Hanushek of Stanford University examined every solid study on spending and outcomes--a total of 163 research papers--and concluded that extra resources are more likely to be squandered than to have a productive effect.
Still, countless people assume that our schools are underfunded. One explanation is that people don't want to believe that large amounts of public money have been used without producing significant results. There's plenty of room for debate on how best to reform our school system, but the sooner Americans realize that lack of resources is not the real problem in our schools the sooner we can have a meaningful debate on how to make education more productive.
The teacher pay myth
The common assertion that teachers are severely underpaid when compared to workers in similar professions is so omnipresent that many Americans simply accept it as gospel. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has declared that teachers ought to be excused from paying any income taxes. Teachers unions are not shy about claiming, like one spokesman for the National Education Association, that "it's easier to earn more money with less stress in other fields." Even First Lady Laura Bush, herself a former public school teacher, has said that for teachers, "salaries are too low. We all know that. We need to figure out a way to pay teachers more."
But the facts tell a different story. The average teacher's salary does seem modest at first glance: about $44,600 in 2002 for all teachers. But when we take an accurate account of what teachers are paid for their labor and compare it to what workers of similar skill levels in similar professions are paid, we find that teachers are not shortchanged at all.
One reason for the prominence of the underpaid-teacher belief is that people often fail to account for the relatively low number of hours that teachers work. It seems obvious, but it is easily forgotten: teachers work only about nine months per year. During the summer they can either work at other jobs or use the time off however else they wish. Either way, it's as much a form of compensation as a paycheck--as anyone who has ever had to count vacation days knows. If a teacher makes $45,000 for nine months of work while a nurse makes $45,000 for 12 months of work, clearly the teacher is much better paid. Nurses would certainly consider it to be a generous raise if they were offered three months' vacation each year at the same annual salary.
The most recent data available indicate that teachers average 7.3 working hours per day, and that they work 180 days per year, adding up to 1,314 hours per year. Americans in normal 9-to-5 professions who take two weeks of vacation and another ten paid holidays per year put in 1,928 working hours. Doing the math, this means the average teacher gets paid a base salary equivalent to a fulltime salary of $65,440. That's the national average for all teachers--more experienced instructors, and those working in better-paying school districts, make tens of thousands of dollars more, sometimes approaching the equivalent of six-figure salaries.
Data from the U.S. Department of Labor show that in 2002, elementary school teachers averaged $30.75 per hour and high school teachers made $31.01. That is about the same as other professionals like architects, economists, biologists, civil engineers, chemists, physicists and astronomers, and computer systems analysts and scientists. Even demanding, education-intensive professions like electrical and electronic engineering, dentistry, and nuclear engineering didn't make much more than teachers per hour worked. And the earnings of teachers are much higher than those of registered nurses, police officers, editors and reporters, firefighters, and social workers.
Some argue that it's unfair to calculate teacher pay on an hourly basis because teachers perform a large amount of work at home--grading papers on the weekend, for instance. But people in other professions also do offsite work. The only important question is whether teachers do significantly more offsite work than others.
Many assume that teachers spend almost all of the school day teaching. But in reality, the average teacher in a departmentalized school (where students have different instructors for different subjects) taught fewer than 3.9 hours per day in 2000. This leaves plenty of time for grading and planning lessons during regular school hours.
What's more, unlike most other professionals, public school teachers cannot easily be fired. Teachers have unparalleled job security because of the strong tenure protections they (but almost no other profession) enjoy. They face essentially none of the performance tests, work quotas, or pressures to produce that people in most other professions requiring a college degree do. Further, unlike other professionals, teachers are not rewarded for exemplary performance with pay raises because their salaries are entirely driven by their years of experience and the number of academic credentials they have earned. This leaves them with little incentive to do great amounts of weekend or overtime work.
It has been well documented that the people drawn into teaching these days tend to be those who have performed least well in college. If teachers are paid about as well as employees in many other good professions, why aren't more high performers taking it up? One suspects that high-performing graduates tend to stay away from teaching because the field's rigid seniority-based structure doesn't allow them to rise faster and earn more money through better performance or by voluntarily putting in longer hours. In any case, it's clear that the primary obstacle to attracting better teachers isn't simply raising pay.
The myth of insurmountable problems
Schools frequently cite social problems like poverty, broken homes, and bad parenting as excuses for their own poor performance. They claim the existence of these challenges means education is doomed to fail. Some seem to think that the very idea of a "failing school" is misleading--that it is really society that has failed, not educators. "It's just plain folly to demand that a school, where a kid spends part of the day, be held accountable for what happens the rest of the day," argues Richard Cohen. Student failure is inherent in poverty itself, he says.
No one would deny that because of factors beyond a school's control, learning is more difficult for some students. If the advocates of this argument were merely cautioning us to be mindful of difficulties like poverty and broken homes, or exhorting us to try to alleviate social problems, no one could disagree with them. But instead, they use these problems as an excuse to oppose school reforms. If low-income minority students perform poorly, they argue, it's because of poverty. No school reform can ever make a difference. Kids who start out lagging must always lag. Social problems are forever more powerful than anything a school may do.
This argument that schools are helpless in the face of social problems is not supported by hard evidence. It is a myth. The truth is that certain schools do a strikingly better job than others at overcoming challenges in the culture.
To test the evidence on this question, I developed a systematic method for measuring levels of advantage and disadvantage in student populations across states. I combined measurements of 16 social factors that researchers agree affect student outcomes, such as poverty, family structure, and health. I named this measurement the Teachability Index, and tested its relationship with actual student outcomes. I found it to be a reliable predictor.
Armed with this tool, I calculated the level of achievement that each state's students should be expected to reach. Then I compared that to actual achievement in every state. I found a large degree of variation.
In Texas, for example, schools perform much better than their student demographics would predict: whereas its raw test scores place it 32nd among the states, Texas ranks fourth after its academic outcomes are adjusted for the Teachability Index. In Louisiana, on the other hand, schools performed less well than student backgrounds would predict.
Inherent in the claim that schools are helpless to educate disadvantaged students is the idea that any attempt to improve educational outcomes through reforms to the system would prove futile. However, the evidence suggests that reforms that focus on the incentives of public schools lead to educational gains.
One reform that has been shown to work is measuring each school's performance through standardized testing, and then providing rewards or sanctions based on a school's performance. This gives a school a direct incentive to educate its students well. States with this sort of accountability testing make statistically significant improvements, researchers have demonstrated. Stanford investigators have found that stronger accountability systems particularly help black and Hispanic students.
Another reform that can help overcome the educational challenges caused by social problems is school choice. Few question that vouchers help the students who use them to leave failing public schools for a private school. This positive impact for voucher participants has been found in five "random assignment" studies. Less understood, however, is the positive effect that school choice has on students who remain in the public schools as well. When school choice programs, such as vouchers and charter schools, are adopted, urban public schools that once had a captive clientele must improve the education they provide or else students, and the funding they represent, will go elsewhere.
In a study I performed of a voucher program in Florida, I found that when chronically failing public schools faced competition from vouchers, they made very impressive gains compared to the performance of all other schools. Similarly low-performing schools whose students were not eligible for the vouchers did not make similar gains. Many other researchers have found that school choice programs increase the performance of public schools. In fact, despite the frequent claims of teachers unions, I am not aware of a single study that has found that a school choice program harmed the academic performance of a public school system.
Both of these strategies--accountability and choice--have been shown to improve student performance, even in places where lots of kids come to school with lots of problems. Other strategies that focus on the incentives of public schools have also been demonstrated to have positive effects. So schools are hardly helpless in the face of social challenges--we only need to adopt the proper reforms.
The class size myth
Just about everybody agrees that smaller classes produce better results. This view was captured crisply in a Chicago Tribune feature story on schools: "The advantages of small classes seem intuitive; who wouldn't want children to learn in a small class? Parents crave them, teachers love them, and policymakers push for them."
As popular discontent with the state of education has grown, class sizes have emerged as a key political issue for both parties. The National Education Association has been particularly aggressive, supporting "a class size of fifteen students in regular programs and even smaller in programs for students with exceptional needs." Given that shrinking class sizes means hiring more teachers, and thus putting more money into the pockets of teachers unions, it is hardly surprising that unions are the loudest supporters.
Unlike other myths, this one isn't totally baseless. Research suggests there may be some advantages to smaller classes--though if so, the benefits are modest and come at a very high price tag. And whether this research is actually correct is a matter of debate. So the strong claims for class size reduction made by political activists are not at all justified.
The centerpiece of class-size research was the STAR project, a 1980s experiment conducted by the state of Tennessee. Students were randomly assigned to one of three types of classes as they progressed from kindergarten through third grade. The first type was a regular-sized class of around 24 students with one teacher. The second option was a regular-sized class with a teacher plus a teacher's aide. The third alternative was a small class of around 15 students with one teacher.
The study found that students in the small classes showed a one-time benefit in test scores as compared to students in regular-sized classes (the teacher's aide resulted in no significant difference). The increase, however, was not large--the equivalent of an eight-percentile-point improvement in performance for a student starting in the middle of the pack. But follow-up research found that 44 percent of students in STAR's small classes took college entrance exams, compared to 40 percent among regular-class students--not so trivial a difference. If we could be reasonably sure that this increase resulted from smaller classes, and could be replicated on a large scale without sacrificing other educational priorities, then class-size reduction would be solidly supported. Unfortunately, the evidence does not allow us to reach those conclusions.
There were a number of shortcomings in the STAR program's implementation that raise doubts about the accuracy of its findings. Most significantly, students weren't tested when they entered the program--so we can't confirm that the three groups started out at the same level as the experiment began. There is no way to know if the project's random assignment method was accurate, and thus no way to be certain that differences observed among the groups weren't there from the beginning.
There is reason to be suspicious because of an anomaly in the research findings: If smaller classes really do improve student performance, we would generally expect to see these benefits accrue over time. But instead, the improvement in STAR test scores was a one-time event. This is unusual and unexpected. Considering that the project's supposed benefits were moderate to begin with, this raises serious doubts about whether the STAR results should lead to policy prescriptions--particularly since evidence on large-scale class size reduction is much less encouraging.
In California, the state appropriated $1 billion in 1996 to reduce elementary school class sizes. When California's test scores rose, advocates of smaller classes held up their program as a model. The reality, however, wasn't so clear. A RAND Corporation study concluded that California students who attended larger elementary school classes improved at about the same rate as students in smaller classes. Though California's overall educational performance went up, it did not seem to be due to smaller classes. (The state had also undertaken a number of other major education reforms at the same time it was reducing class sizes.)
Even if class size reduction does improve performance under optimal conditions in a small, controlled experiment like the STAR project, labor pool problems may prevent this from being reproduced on a large scale. Replicating the benchmarks of the STAR project would entail hiring almost 40 percent more teachers nationwide. Digging that deeply into the teacher labor pool would require accepting a lower quality of hire, likely bringing disappointing results.
And the financial costs of reducing class sizes on that scale would be exceptionally high--$2,306 per pupil according to calculations by Caroline Hoxby of Harvard University. There is only a finite amount of money available, so every dollar spent on class size reduction is a dollar that will not be available for salary increases, books, equipment, or the implementation of other reform policies. This will be true no matter how much money a school system has. Given that other reform strategies are more promising and less costly, the modest benefits of class size reduction simply can't justify the very large sacrifices that would have to be made.
The certification myth
Receiving professional certification is generally regarded as a reliable sign of expertise, because in most occupations, credentials are given to those who have proven their worth. Few people would see a doctor who wasn't licensed, or a lawyer who hadn't passed the bar. Teacher quality is certainly a crucial factor in students' academic achievement, but having an extra education degree is not linked to success.
Many researchers, politicians, and most Americans assume that more credentialing means better teachers, but the evidence suggests that it doesn't. One of the strongest and most consistent findings in the entire body of research on teacher quality is that teaching certificates and master's degrees in education are irrelevant to classroom performance. Yet most school systems reward certification and experience, instead of rewarding more reliable direct indicators of good teaching.
In a review conducted for the Abell Foundation, researchers found that teachers holding a master's in education did not produce higher student performance, and among new teachers, traditional certification made no difference in student performance. After examining every available study on the impact of teaching credentials on job performance--171 in total--Eric Hanushek found that only nine uncovered any significant positive relationship between credentials and student performance, five found a significant negative relationship between the two, and 157 showed no connection. Looking at Teach For America--a program that lets recent college graduates become teachers without obtaining traditional education credentials--three scholars at Mathematica Policy Research found that students taught by these non-credentialed instructors made significant gains in math in one year, and kept pace in reading. Current policy--which generally centers on teachers having education certificates--therefore appears to be seriously misguided.
The current teacher pay system, which connects compensation to education degrees, also harms teacher quality by artificially redirecting time and money toward earning those pieces of paper instead of advanced knowledge in specific subject areas. One NAEP study pointedly concluded that education master's degrees have "little effect on improving teachers' abilities," and therefore the enormous amount of money spent pursuing these degrees "is arguably one of the least efficient expenditures in education."
Researchers have also investigated the relationship between years of teaching experience and students' academic achievement. Here, the story is inconclusive. If anything, the evidence indicates that teachers grow a little more effective during their first few years as they get up to speed in the classroom, but that after this initial period, their effectiveness plateaus. This evidence raises doubts about the practice of giving relatively small raises in a teacher's second and third years, while giving teachers in their 20th and 30th years large annual raises.
Members of the education establishment fiercely resist giving up the old linkage of pay to paper accomplishments. When Michigan adopted new standards emphasizing a teacher's proven academic ability (as measured in skills tests) rather than their credentials or years of experience, the Detroit News profiled angry teachers. "It's a slap in my face that I have to go back and take a test," said one teacher with a master's degree and 30 years of experience.
Until we stop hiring and financially rewarding teachers according to qualifications that are irrelevant to their performance, we can never expect improved quality in classroom instruction.
The rich-school myth
A popular myth says that private schools do better than public schools only because they have more money, recruit high-performing students, and expel low-performing students. The conventional wisdom is captured in one Michigan newspaper's warning that "a voucher system would force penniless public schools to shut down while channeling more and more money into wealthy private schools."
There is no question that, on average, students in private schools demonstrate significantly greater achievement. For example, on the eighth-grade reading portion of the NAEP test, 53 percent of private school students perform at or above the level defined as "proficient," compared to only 30 percent of public school students. In eighth-grade math, only 27 percent of public-school students perform at the "proficient" level, compared to 43 percent of private-school students. Interestingly, twice as many private-school eighth graders go on to earn a bachelor's degree as their public-school counterparts, in percentage terms.
However: it simply isn't true that public schools are penniless while private schools are wealthy. In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the average private school charged $4,689 per student in tuition for the 1999Ð2000 school year. That same year, the average public school spent $8,032 per pupil. Among Catholic schools (which educate 49 percent of all private-school students), the average tuition was only $3,236. The vast majority of private-school students actually have less than half as much funding behind them as public-school students.
Some point out that private schools don't always provide all the services that public schools do: transportation, special ed classes, lunch, counseling. But in an analysis comparing public-school and Catholic-school costs in New York, D.C., Dayton, and San Antonio, researchers found that excluding all of these services plus administration costs from the public-school ledger still left public schools with significantly more resources than Catholic schools. Besides, if public schools provide additional services, then those services should contribute to their students' educational outcomes. All spending is ultimately relevant to the question of a school's cost-effectiveness.
Just as lack of money cannot be blamed for poor outcomes in public schools, neither can differences in selectivity be held responsible. Surprising as it may be, most private schools are not very selective. A study of the nation's Catholic schools concluded that the typical institution accepted 88 percent of the students who applied. Other research in D.C., Dayton, and New York private schools found that only 1 percent of parents reported their children were denied admission because of a failed admissions test. Moreover, the academic and demographic backgrounds of students who use vouchers to attend private school across the country are very similar to those who don't.
Private schools don't significantly alter their student populations by expelling low-achieving or troublesome students, either. One study found that "Catholic high schools dismiss fewer than two students per year" on average. While it is true that every student is officially entitled to a publicly funded education, students in public schools are regularly expelled. According to the U.S. Department of Education, roughly 1 percent of all public school students are expelled in a year, and an additional 0.6 percent are segregated into specialized academies. That's more than in Catholic and other private schools. Moreover, public schools actually contract out 1.3 percent of their disabled students to private schools.
In any case, numerous studies have compared what happens when students with identical backgrounds attend private versus public schools. And consistently, in study after study, the matched peers who remain in public schools do less well than children who shift to private schools. Higher student achievement is clearly attributable to some difference in the way private schools instruct--and not to more money, or simple exclusion of difficult students.
The myth of ineffective school vouchers
When reporting on school vouchers--programs that give parents money they can use to send their children to private schools--the media almost always describe research on vouchers' effects as inconclusive. The New York Times, for instance, responded to a Supreme Court decision approving vouchers by declaring: "All this is happening without a clear answer to the fundamental question of whether school choice has improved American education. The debate...remains heated, defined more by conflicting studies than by real conclusions."
In reality, though, the research on vouchers isn't mixed or inconclusive at all. High quality research shows consistently that vouchers have positive effects for students who receive them. The only place where results are mixed is in regard to the magnitude of vouchers' benefits.
There have been eight random-assignment studies of school voucher programs, and in seven of them, the benefits for voucher recipients were statistically significant. In Milwaukee, for example, a study I conducted with two researchers from Harvard found that students awarded vouchers to attend private schools outperformed a matched control group of students in Milwaukee public schools. After four years, the voucher students had reading scores six percentile points above the control group, and standardized math results 11 percentile points higher. All of the students in this study (which is mirrored by other research) were low-income and Hispanic or African American.
In a study of a different program based in Charlotte, North Carolina, I found that recipients of privately funded vouchers outperformed peers who did not receive a voucher by six percentile points after one year. All of the students studied were from low-income households. In New York City, a privately funded school choice program has been the subject of many careful studies. One found that African-American voucher recipients outperformed the control group by 9 percentile points after three years in the program. Another analysis found a difference of 5 percentile points in math. A similar program in Washington, D.C. resulted in African-American students outperforming peers without vouchers by 9 percentile points after two years.
Every one of the voucher programs studied resulted in enthusiastic support from parents as well. And all this was achieved in private schools that expend a mere fraction of the amount spent per student in public schools. The most generously funded of the five voucher programs studied, the Milwaukee program, provides students with only 60 percent of the $10,112 spent per pupil in that city's public schools. The privately funded voucher programs spend less than half what public schools spend per pupil. Better performances, happier parents, for about half the cost: if similar results were produced for a method of fighting cancer, academics and reporters would be elated.
Spread the truth
Over the past 30 years, many of our education policies have been based on beliefs that clear-eyed research has recently shown to be false. Virtually every area of school functioning has been distorted by entrenched myths. Disentangling popular misconceptions from our education system--and establishing fresh policies based on facts that are supported by hard evidence--will be the work of at least a generation.
That work will be especially difficult because powerful interest groups with reasons to protect and extend the prevailing mythology will oppose any rethinking. But with time, and diligent effort by truth-tellers, reality and reason have triumphed over mythology in many other fields. There is no reason they can't prevail in schoolhouses as well.
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