Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Jay P. Greene, the head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of the new book Education Myths: What Special-Interest Groups Want You to Believe About Our Schools and Why It Isn't So.
FP: Jay Greene, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Greene: Thank you for inviting me.
FP: What inspired you to write this book?
Greene: When talking with people about education policy, from reporters to policymakers to friends at parties, I found that they would often assert as known fact claims that I believed were completely at odds with the evidence. Before being able to consider education reform seriously in these conversations I would first have to clear away the clutter of these education myths. After doing this over and over it struck me that it might be useful to have a book that tried to dispel these often-repeated but unsupported claims. The book could be a handbook for reformers, providing them with the evidence and arguments they need to get beyond myths and get to real solutions.
FP: Tell us some of the main myths advanced by special interest groups dominating public education.
Greene: The most common myth -- and probably the most inconsistent with the evidence – is the Money Myth. The Money Myth is the claim that schools are currently horribly under-funded and would perform significantly better if only we gave them more money. When people repeat this myth they usually have little idea of how much we already spend on schools nor do they have a clear understanding of how much we have increased spending over the last several decades with virtually no improvement in school quality to show for it. We are now spending almost $10,000 per pupil in public K-12 schools each year. That is almost $500 billion, which is more than we spend on national defense – even more than the entire GDP of Russia converted into US dollars. And the amount we spend per student has doubled over the last three decades, adjusted for inflation.
So, we are spending a great deal of money each year on public education, we’ve been increasing that spending for several decades, and yet student achievement has been stagnant. The performance of 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is the Department of Education’s best long-term measure of student achievement, shows that math and reading scores are no different than they were during the Nixon Administration. Science scores have actually slipped a little as have high school graduation rates. If schools just need more money to do their job well, then we should have seen some benefits from all of this increasing spending. Clearly schools need stronger incentives to use their money more effectively. Without stronger incentives there is little reason to think that the next doubling of per pupil spending will produce anything different than the last doubling.
FP: How do advocates for more spending respond to these facts?
Greene: Proponents of the Money Myth have advanced a variety of additional myths to rescue it. They claim that spending hasn’t really increased very much because increases have been diverted into special education -- the Special Ed Myth. They claim that schools can hardly be expected to show improvement given how increasingly disadvantaged students are – the Myth of Helplessness. Or they argue that spending increases would produce significant improvement if we were to use them to reduce class size (the Class Size Myth), hire more certified teachers (the Certification Myth), or raise the salaries for horribly underpaid teachers (the Teacher Pay Myth). Each one of these claims is inconsistent with the evidence and the book devotes a chapter to debunking each one.
FP: You mentioned that to improve student achievement schools need stronger incentives to use their money more effectively…what’s wrong with incentives in education?
Greene: Right now the amount of resources that most public schools receive has nothing to do with how well they improve student learning. By detaching revenues from performance we have undermined the incentives that schools and educators have to perform better. Perversely, in some cases, the worse that schools do the stronger their argument is to receive additional funding. New York City schools, for example, are set to receive a huge court-ordered increase in spending because their students are not receiving an “adequate” education. While there are many people of goodwill in education who work hard because they care about kids, we can’t develop an effective education system based solely on goodwill. There isn’t enough goodwill to go around and even well-intentioned people tend to work harder and better when they are provided with incentives to do so.
FP: How can we strengthen those incentives?
Greene: There are two broad reform strategies that show promise – accountability and choice. Accountability systems present schools and educators with rewards or sanctions based on their performance. Schools and educators that succeed may be given praise or additional resources while schools that fall short may be threatened with the loss of resources, reorganization, or public embarrassment. There are chapters in the book devoted to dispelling the myths that accountability systems just produce teaching to the test, cheating, or manipulation of results (the High Stakes Myth), that accountability systems push more students to dropout of school (the Push-Out Myth), and that implementing accountability systems such as the federal No Child Left Behind program requires huge increases in spending (the Accountability Burden Myth).
Expanding school choice strengthens the incentives of schools and educators to perform better by making schools have to attract and retain students and the resources those students generate. Simply assigning students to schools based on where they live undermines incentives by making those students a captured clientele (unless they are wealthy enough to move to an area with desired schools or purchase a private school tuition). Public schools receive the same per pupil dollars whether they serve students well or poorly, which increases the odds that they will be served poorly. The book rebuts the Inconclusive Research Myth, that says that the evidence is unclear on whether vouchers improve the academic performance of students who use them to attend a private school; the Exeter Myth, that says that private schools only do better because they have more money and are able to select better students; the Draining Myth, that says that expanding school choice harms public schools by draining them of talent and resources; the Disabled Need Not Apply Myth, that says that private schools don’t serve disabled students; and the Democratic Values and Segregation Myths, that say that private schools promote segregation and undermine civic values. As it turns out, none of these commonly repeated claims about school choice is supported by the evidence.
FP: Who are the special interest groups promoting these myths and why are the myths so prevalent?
Greene: Most of us feel very familiar with schools. We all spent many years in schools. We may have sent our own children through school. Many of us have even worked in schools. So, we are tempted to think that our direct experiences provide us with all of the evidence we need about education policy. Unfortunately, these direct experiences are necessarily limited, distorted by our own involvement, and so not sufficient for making education policy. We have to look at the systematic evidence, not just at our own experiences. In addition, education policy is emotionally charged because it involves the well-being of children. We might be reluctant to question the need for increased spending or raising teacher pay because we would rather not be viewed as being stingy when it comes to children. The emotional nature of education policy discussions may cloud our reasoning and make us vulnerable to myths.
But the most important reason why we have so many myths about education is that there are special interest groups promoting them. Teachers unions, school board associations, and education bureaucracies will use evidence to advance their agenda if they can but will also use myths if they must. They are relatively indifferent to whether an argument is supported by evidence or is a myth when trying to maximize their financial interests. This makes them no worse and no better than any other interest group. But we are particularly vulnerable to education special interest groups because they play upon our emotions to fool us into seeing them as advocates for the well being of children rather than as normal interest groups. When we hear sugar producers make their case for increasing sugar price supports we take their arguments with a large grain of sugar and closely scrutinize whether their claims are supported by evidence or just myths. But with education interest groups our defenses are down. Just because groups represent teachers or schools doesn’t mean that they are primarily concerned with the needs of children. We need to treat these groups as normal interest groups and only support their claims after reviewing the evidence.
FP: Mr. Greene, thank you for joining us today.
Greene: It was a pleasure.