Education in Two Worlds: Follow Up to "50 Myths & Lies"
My co-author, David Berliner, and I were recently interviewed by Larry Ferlazzo as a follow-up to the publication of our recent book 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools. A somewhat shorter version of the interview was published by Education Week and is available there. For those wishing to read a slightly longer version of the interview, it is reproduced below.
Ferlazzo: You make a clear distinction between what you call school myths and hoaxes. Could you elaborate on what you see as the differences between the two, along with providing some examples?
Answer: A hoax is a deliberate attempt to deceive, and is more elaborate than a simple lie. Hoaxes are stories of doubtful veracity, constructed to create a desired opinion in the mind of the hearer. The Piltdown Man was a hoax. American education has not had to contend with many hoaxes, but the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) to privatize our public schools is fertile ground for growing a few hoaxes. Slick TV ads for online charter schools – like those run by K12 Inc., for example — that show smiling children and happy mothers negotiating an education on a laptop on the kitchen table approach the mendacity of a full-blown hoax.
Unlike hoaxes, myths arise from our well-intentioned attempts to understand and generalize our personal experiences. Unfortunately, our personal experience is a poor guide to the creation of general knowledge. We may have held our son or daughter back in the 3rd grade for a second year and the child turned a couple Fs into Cs. When we conclude that retaining children in grade is a beneficial practice, we contribute to the myths of The Benefits of Grade Retention.
Ferlazzo: What do you see as the two or three most dangerous “myths and lies” about schools and why do you think they are so dangerous?
Answer: One myth, we call the grand myth, is a myth from which many others flow. It is the common myth that America’s public schools do poorly compared to other countries. It is fair to say that some of our schools do not do well, but it is a flat out lie to say America’s schools do not do well. Those are two very different claims. On the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study [TIMSS] tests, on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study [PIRLS] test, and on the Program for International Student Assessment [PISA] tests of reading, science and mathematics, public school students in five groups were assessed. One group attended schools where fewer than 10% of the families were in poverty, others attended schools where approximately 10-25% of the families were in poverty, or where 25-50%, 50-75% or over 75% of the families served by the school were in poverty. On each of these three international tests the American public school students in the schools where poverty rates of families were under 10%, or under 25%, did terrific. The approximately 15 million children in these two groups of schools were consistently among the world leaders! Even the middle group, where poverty rates for families was between 25-50%, our public school children did well, that is, above the international average. That means that about 50% of our public schools students, about 25 million children, are doing fine. But others are not. Children in schools here over half the families live in poverty—particularly those children that attend schools with over 75% of the families in poverty, do not do well in school. We run an apartheid-lite system of schooling, where housing patterns determine whom you go to school with and how those schools score on achievement tests. Where poverty rates in schools are low, scores are remarkably high on all three tests. The myth that we cannot compete well in international tests is just that—a grand myth, a meta myth, a destructive myth.
A second myth we see as dangerous has that quality because of what it reveals about too many of America’s politicians and school leaders: it reveals both their ignorance and their cruelty! This is the myth that leaving a child back in grade who is not doing well academically is good for the child. It provides the child with “the gift of time” to catch up. We believe that only ignorant and cruel people would support such a policy, although it is law in about a dozen states, including Arizona and Florida. First of all, a large and quite consistent set of research studies, many of excellent quality, point out that for the vast majority of the children retention in grade has either no benefit, or is detrimental. Only rarely does retention benefit the child who was left back. So the research overwhelming suggests that those who recommend retention are likely to be ignorant. Second, an important piece of the rationale for retention policies is that if you cannot read well by third grade you are more likely to be a school failure. But reading expert Stephen Krashen disputes this, citing research on 12 young students with serious reading problems, dyslexics all. Eleven of the twelve did not learn to read well until they were between 10 and 12 years of age, and one did not learn to read until he was in 12th grade. Among these slow learners, all of whom would have been left back in Florida and Arizona, were nine who published creative scholarly works, and one who became a Nobel laureate. So not doing well by third grade does not determine one’s destiny. Third, the research informs us that retention policies are disproportionately directed at those who are poor, male, English language learners, and children of color. Middle class white children are rarely left back. Fourth, a retention decision changes family dynamics. Parents and siblings change in their treatment of, and aspirations for, the child identified by the school as having “flunked.” Of course, the schools do not say a child is dumb. Instead they offer the children and the families “the gift of time” to catch up. But the world interprets that gift more cruelly. Fifth, being left back is associated with much higher rates of dropping out before completion of high school. Thus, the social costs of this policy go way up since these children are more likely to need assistance in living because of poor wage earning capacity, and there is also the greater likelihood of a higher incarceration rate for people that do not finish school and cannot find decent work. Sixth, when surveyed, children left back say it feels as bad as losing a parent or going blind. It is an overwhelmingly negative event in the lives of the vast majority of the retained children, so leaving them back is cruel as well as a reflection of the ignorance of those who promote these policies. Seventh, and finally, the same costs expended for an extra year of education for the child who is held back, say eight thousand dollars, could more profitably be spent on a more beneficial treatment than repetition of a grade. A certified reading specialist, working twice a week as a tutor throughout the school year and for some part of the summer, would have greater success in improving a child’s academic performance. There is no more powerful treatment than tutoring, and in this case it is cheaper and more humane than is flunking a child. For the seven reasons given, we can think of no education policy that reflects worse on America’s politicians and educators than the policy of retaining students in grade.
Ferlazzo: What are a couple of “myths and lies” that didn’t make the list?
Answer. We didn’t challenge the Common Core State Standards. We were not all against them, though we did think there were some issues with them. Most of all we were concerned with the lies that were told about them. For example, we felt that The Common Core will not raise international test scores because the problem is clearly not our curriculum. Our students who are not in schools that serve large numbers of families in poverty actually do quite well in international competitions—see above—and our Asian students, of any income level do, remarkably well. This means our admittedly uncoordinated curriculum is not at all inadequate. So selling the Common Core as a way to do better on international tests is bogus.
We also felt that the Common Core will not grow the economy, as some have claimed. The economy is a function of the creativity, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship of our workers and company executives, along with tax codes and government incentives. Sadly, it is the many admirable characteristics of young American adults that could easily be killed by an education system built around the Common Core standards and its associated tests. That will occur if the tests of the CCSS tests are little different from those that came before, tests of memorization that promoted little more than coaching of the most mind-numbing type. Further, if high stakes are attached to those tests, as currently demanded by the federal government and most states, the test will be corrupted, as will all the people who work with the tests.
We felt that the Common Core will not create high paying jobs. Investment of capital creates jobs. Contrary to naïve beliefs, merely educating a person does not necessarily create a job for that person, if it did there would be much lower unemployment in many poor nations around the world. In fact, one middle-class job that might be affected negatively by the Common Core is teaching. The salaries of teachers can be driven down with standardization of the curriculum because the job of the teacher becomes more like training and less like educating. Trainers are cheaper to hire than teachers. Further, because of curriculum standardization, the Common Core promotes use of cyber-curricula, making experienced teachers less necessary and certainly less costly.
We felt that the the Common Core may not lead to a more democratic society. While the “rigor” of the CCSS is applauded by many, the application of “rigor” is sometimes used to keep poor and minority students out of college preparatory and AP courses, and to foster dropouts. Rigor is often a code word for discrimination.
We felt that the the Common Core will not reduce the achievement gap. The standards were not written by experienced educators, and so they do not consider the individual needs of students of varying abilities who populate the classes in our public schools. Some students might need to be challenged more, some students need to be challenged with a different curriculum, and there are those who face challenges in learning at the levels expected at each grade. The CCSS do not have much to say about these realities of classroom life.
Furthermore, the testing accompanying the Common Core will limit the states’ abilities to develop unique local curriculum, as promised by the developers of the CCSS. This is likely to occur because teachers and schools will be judged on tests that match the standards not the local curriculum. This likelihood suggests, as well, that the U.S. system of education might end up having more homogeneity in its outcomes than is desirable. If all 50 million or more students are learning the same things, it might be limiting the potential of our nation. Our nation has to deal with a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. To confront such a world we might be better served with a broad spectrum of students’ knowledge and skills than by a narrower set of the type promoted by the CCSSs.
Other myths we might want to do more with include
- The high school exit exam myth. They might be close to worthless.
- Single sex classes. More on that has come out. They don’t seem to do much.
- Readability formulas seem to have lots of bunkum associated with them.
- Lots more on VAMs—really junk science.
- And related to VAMs is the weak teacher effect on aggregate scores, as opposed to their powerful effect on individual scores.
Ferlazzo: What is your advice to those who want to fight against these “myths and lies”?
Answer: Become more politically active. Education is often the biggest budget item in states and local districts so unless you are helping to make those decisions education will get screwed, especially by the rich and the old who don’t want to pay taxes, especially for young children of color. Run for school board in your own or in neighboring districts.
Join community organizations that are concerned with the schools: The Lions, Rotary, Elks, the woman’s auxiliary to the Royal Order of Moose, and the like. Make sure that those people know what is going on in the schools.
Refuse to give capricious tests; tell parents to keep their kids home at standardized test time; get more militant: “A profession of sheep will be ruled by wolves.”
Write letters to the editor, op ed pieces, attend political meetings, especially school board meetings when you can, and speak out.
Shame people who say really stupid things, like “teachers are overpaid,” “we have lots of incompetent teachers,” “teachers don’t work hard,” and “poverty is no excuse.” Make fun of them. They deserve that.
Ferlazzo: During my nineteen year community organizing career, we always kept in mind the organizers axiom attributed to Saul Alinsky, “The price of criticism is a constructive alternative.” There’s an ongoing discussion among critics of many present-day “school reforms” about balancing what we’re “against” with what we’re “for.” Though you include some suggestions for better alternatives, I’m curious if you ever considered framing your book as “Fifty Policies That Work” instead of “50 Myths and Lies”? Was your decision to choose the latter for rhetorical, political or other reasons?
Here are just a few of the things we are for: We never wanted to get into policies that work because we are probably better critics than advocates, but also because the single biggest problem we see is a HUGE one. It’s the expansion of the middle class through decent employment, along with the promotion of dignity for workers and their families. That’s more than an educational issue, but that’s what would help our schools a lot. But we are for some particular things, elaborated on next.
What we are for is an enormous change in housing patterns. Putting low-income people with low-income people is apartheid-lite. We need more mixed SES housing.
We are for dual language schools.
We are for higher taxes on the wealthy and some corporations to fund the commons—teachers, police, fire fighters, our army and its veterans, park rangers, and all others who make a democracy work. Decent pay and enormous respect for those who serve the commons gets us higher quality public servants and remarkably low levels of corruption.
We are for an enriched but not an academically pressured childhood. We like play. We invented childhood 150 tears ago—lets not throw it out just because many Asians are willing to.
We are for an inspectorate made up of excellent experienced teachers (perhaps Nationally Board Certified Teachers) to regularly supplement principals visits to classrooms. They should both advise and, if needed, help remove teachers from the classroom. This requires a number of observers, and a number of observations, to reliably assess teachers and is therefore expensive. But it is likely to be less expensive than a court fight over teacher tenure. Professions are partly defined by having the right to police themselves and determine due process. Maybe it’s time to try doing this.
We are for an expansion of the meaning of an education budget. We’d include expansion of high quality early childhood education, summer educational programs that are not just for remediation, paying a part of the budget to local people who run local youth organizations, running after school cross age tutoring programs and after school clubs with paid instructors, such as robotics clubs, school news clubs, and of course sports. Evidence exists that each of these activities helps youth develop in both academic and pro-social ways as they mature.
Ferlazzo: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to share?
Answer: We have written too much already. But we did this book because we want to start a thousand conversations. Public education in the next few decades could be lost if it is not a focus of attention and support. That would be a shame. We always think of Lawrence Cremin when we discuss education. He said that when the history of the United States is written in the middle of the 21st century, and the question is raised about why the US became the dominant power in the world at the end of the 20th century, the answer would be found in the 19th century. It was not inventions like the Gatling gun, cotton gin, steamboat, telegraph or telephone: It was the invention of the common school. We believe that. These schools need to be helped survive the privatization movement both because they work well where poverty is not the killer of achievement that it has become, and because a successful public school system may allow us to keep our fragile democracy.
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