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Six Lies Most People Believe About U.S. Schools


Popular lies about U.S. education certainly don’t do the kids any good. They just let the adults continue to feel comfortable while kids receive increasing diagnoses of ADHD (one in five boys now) and special needs, delay life milestones like marriage and buying a house, enter a crippled workforce, and face paying off the biggest debt in the history of humankind while receiving no government benefits in return. All these, and more, are directly related to education quality. No wonder the kids are getting antsy.

So, in the spirit of “the truth shall set you free,” here are a few lies it’s time to dispel about U.S. education. I call them lies because they’ve been repeatedly publicly disproven but remain driving forces for education policy.

Lie 1: America’s rich, suburban schools are high quality

The United States’ best schools are mediocre compared to their international peers, even though the United States spends more money than any country in the world on K-12 education. The Global Report Card has recently layered specific, nationwide figures upon broader comparisons that have long demonstrated our mediocrity. Its authors give Beverly Hills as one example. It represents most affluent suburban districts, which Americans typically think contain great schools. But they don’t. “If Beverly Hills were relocated to Canada, it would be at the 46th percentile in math achievement, a below-average district. If the city were in Singapore, the average student in Beverly Hills would only be at the 34th percentile…” The schools everyone thinks are so great are only so because we compare them to our truly awful urban districts, rather than to actual peers. In short, America suffers from the Lake Wobegon effect.

The knee-jerk response to anyone raising the mounds of evidence to this effect is something I heard from one of Alabama’s best teachers a few weeks ago: The United States educates and tests all children, not just the rich city kids like those other countries that outperform us (China, she’s looking at you). Actually, many countries that have large minority populations and educate everyone do it better than the U.S., including Canada, France, Brazil, and Finland. And other research has shown that U.S. kids who have richer families and parents with more education still lag their international peers in academic performance. The same holds true if you eliminate minorities from the comparison.

Lie 2: Poverty is the root of America’s education problems

Teacher unions and other education determinists keep insisting mediocre education quality is not teachers’ fault. It’s society’s fault. American kids perform poorly because they don’t have enough healthcare, school counselors, museum visits, money, and parenting. This is an attractive belief for people who want to avoid responsibility. And it’s not fair to blame teachers for the increasing numbers of parents who will not give their children a stable, married home and its requisite emotional and academic structure, but teachers and schools can overcome poverty and neglect. We know because some have, and not at random. For example, giving a child who lags two years behind his peers an excellent teacher (defined as a top-25-percent teacher) four years in a row will catch him up. This would close the nation’s persistent black-white achievement gap.

The achievement gap largely comes down to a vocabulary gap, which means a knowledge gap, because words name things.

Perhaps the best argument against this blame-shifting defeatism has been advanced by self-described liberal and public intellectual E.D. Hirsch Jr. His works collate decades of research into one resounding thesis: The achievement gap between black and white, rich and poor is not due to lack of money. It largely comes down to a vocabulary gap, which means a knowledge gap, because words name things. Perhaps you’ve heard of the 30 million-word gap? Many poor children have a massive vocabulary deficit that modern U.S. education simply does not overcome. (This is largely the fault of parents who put their child in front of the TV or iPad instead of reading him books, but teachers can overcome it.) It’s not the money, it’s the education.

Furthermore, a raft of studies have shown that increasing education spending does not increase student achievement. The latest such study was done last year by Harvard University economists. They compared state education spending and student achievement and found a correlation so small it was statistically insignificant.

Lie 3: Schools should teach generic skills like “critical thinking” and “real-world application”

So why don’t schools overcome the knowledge deficit? Because prevailing education theory, which has stood strong now for about half a century, preaches that children don’t need knowledge. They need skills that can apply to any knowledge.

For a selection of what this content-free philosophy sounds like, I looked at just two days worth of reporting on how schools are putting into place new national education goals called Common Core. It would “have students practice critical thinking, curiosity and creativity instead of merely memorizing content”; “It focuses on how deeply a student understands the content presented”; “The Common Core State Standards focus on key topics, allowing teachers to go much deeper, with an emphasis on real world skills like collaboration, communication and critical thinking.” The standards are said to teach children “how to apply what they’ve learned to real life… ‘It’s skills now, not just content. It’s not just rote memory anymore.’” In all the reporting on Common Core, no contrary examples were reported.

In short, you cannot be a critical thinker without anything to think with or about.

Doesn’t it sound good? No more rotten memorization! Just living, breathing, real-world skills! Unfortunately, as Hirsch shows, there are no skills that apply to any knowledge indiscriminately. Believing that, however plausible it sounds, is the intellectual equivalent of asking a carpenter to apply his chiseling skills to gardening, or horseback riding. Knowledge acquisition must be systematic and focused, and requires memory. You cannot have great reading skill that applies equally to a passage about the Civil War and to one about the lifecycle of amoebae. Your ability to read and understand any given passage depends on your background knowledge about the subject. In short, you cannot be a critical thinker without anything to think with or about.

Lie 4: Teachers are well-prepared professionals

Teacher training ends up handicapping teachers by instilling in them the most ineffective education philosophies and methods, such as the progressive ideas outlined above. A review of all the available research on teacher certification (which usually requires college-level classes) has decisively shown it does not result in better teachers. It’s likely the mush-brained philosophy of education schools is a prime reason.

As George Leef writes, “Back in 1991, Rita Kramer’s book Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America’s Teachers argued that our ed schools were giving the country a steady stream of intellectually weak teachers who had been steeped in dubious educational theories but knew very little about the subject matter they were to teach. Despite widespread and strenuous criticism such as Kramer’s, education schools have changed very little since then.”

Leef also brings up another largely unknown, touchy reality: Because they do not demand much of students, teaching programs recruit from the bottom of the academic barrel. As I’ve noted elsewhere, students who intend to major in education have below-average SAT scores, which equate to a below-proficient ranking on state tests. Teaching coursework is among the least challenging available, yet prospective teachers need more remedial classes than their counterparts in humanities and social sciences. Even so, education majors receive the highest grades of all college students, according to research by University of Missouri economics professor Cory Koedel. The combination of undemanding coursework and grade inflation perpetuates a culture of low standards throughout education, Koedel says.

Why don’t ed schools get better? States’ teacher certification mandates, which in many cases also apply to private school teachers, give education schools a monopoly over teacher prep. They don’t have to turn out good teachers to keep getting customers. So they’re free to perpetuate failed education philosophies while children consequently continue to suffer.

Lie 5: Education is nonpartisan and amoral

It’s clear that philosophy influences education quality. What a teacher believes about how children learn is crucial to whether her students actually do. The dominant progressive educational philosophy, however, rests on two contradictory tenets. One, educators must not impose their moral worldview in the classroom, and two, education is tool to create progressive social policy. The unavoidable reality is that education deals with human nature, and because of that it cannot be neutral—philosophically, religiously, or politically.

Having schools ignore God altogether merely preferences atheism or agnosticism over every other belief system.

Every school necessarily helps children explain our universe and place within it, just like religion. Progressive education philosophy assumes, contrary to most major religions, that children are naturally good and wise enough to direct their own learning. And it aims to use education as a political tool. Consider the shift in math instruction. Math must now be “accessible” to poor students, and not by giving them higher-quality instruction but by lowering expectations, as Sandra Stotsky explains. “The primary role of math teachers, constructivists say in turn, shouldn’t be to explain or otherwise try to ‘transfer’ their mathematical knowledge to students [because that perpetuates privilege, she writes earlier]… Instead, they must help the students construct their own understanding of mathematics and find their own math solutions.” This obviously reflects specific, and highly debatable, beliefs about humans and politics.

Many people think religious controversies in schools can be solved by having schools ignore God altogether. That merely preferences atheism or agnosticism over every other belief system, whose adherents believe a God exists. In each case, central religious or irreligious beliefs have far-reaching implications for how and what every school should teach. The question is not whether schools promote certain philosophies, but how and which, and whether families should be forced to enroll their children in schools that actively contradict family beliefs.

Lie 6: Practically everyone should go to college

This foolhardy demand rests on the false premise that the point of an education is job preparation. But any good education will treat a student as a whole person and not merely an economic unit. This is particularly important becaue the U.S. education system exists to undergird our unusual form of government: self-rule.

Nowadays, however, we hear nothing about citizenship, the public purpose of public education.

Check your state constitution. Mine says public schools exist because “knowledge and learning, generally diffused throughout a community, [are] essential to the preservation of a free government…” Notice it establishes public education to preserve a free government, not to get people the lifestyles they want. As famed economist Milton Friedman writes, vocational education generally does not create enough of a public good to justify direct government subsidy. “The individual is rewarded in a free enterprise society by receiving a higher return for his services than he would otherwise be able to command,” he says, meaning vocational education primarily benefits the individual, so they should pay for their own education. (Friedman also discusses ways for government to facilitate this for poor people without creating perverse incentives). Ultimately, Friedman agrees with the original rationale forAmerica’s public education systems—that they should exist to provide general education for citizenship.

Nowadays, however, we hear nothing about citizenship, the ostensible purpose of public education. Education subsidies seem to have devolved into a mechanism for getting people enough money to make them happy. We hear things like this, from Oklahoma Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, just last week: “It’s clear that a high school degree is no longer adequate to gain a good job and access to the middle-class life.”  Public schooling is considered everyone’s birthright to the middle class. But Gov. Fallin is just wrong.  Brookings Institution research recently showed that a person’s chance of living in poverty is only 2 percent if he or she merely completes high school, works full time, and marries before creating children.

The past several years have seen a deluge of demands that a high school diploma now qualify all bearers for non-remedial admission to college. The Obama administration has unilaterally required this of all states using No Child Left Behind waivers. This will only further dilute college academics, because everyone is simply not suited for college. As social scientist Charles Murray writes, “The refusal to confront the relationship between intelligence and success in college has produced a cascade of harms–to many students who try to go to college, to those who do not, to the system of higher education, and to the nation as a whole.”

The impetus that unites these lies is that they promote ideas people want to believe. But lies, however pleasant for one’s peace of mind in the short run, damage people. Those who run our schools say they care about children but year after year they continue to perpetuate systems that are demonstrably harmful to our kids. Those damaged kids will one day grow up to be citizens who are ill-prepared to face our nation’s challenges. The future of freedom depends on our willingness to tell hard truths to our entrenched educational interests and demand accountability for their actions.