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:
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
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.
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
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
Delusion #4: Obama is dismantling NCLBObama 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
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 othe...
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
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).
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
Delusion 7: Charter Schools are More Effective Than Traditional Public Schools
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 a...
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 privat...
Delusion #8: Teachers unions protect bad teachers and block parental choice.
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
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.