Education in America is a topic of public discussion. Everyone has an opinion and is willing to express it, and everyone has ideas about what’s wrong with our educational system and how to fix it. What most well-meaning people with good ideas don’t seem to know is that reform in education has been going on and has been the subject of debate and discussion for many, many years. The problem is that if we don’t make changes based on what we know works, the changes we make will not help. Reform in education sometimes seems like a hamster in a wheel, always running to stand still. Myths about reform abound, and need to be debunked so we can move forward. Here are 5 of the most prominent myths about education reform.
1. If teachers don’t produce results, they should be fired – after all, no other profession is unaccountable.
There are a couple of good reasons to debunk this myth. First, teachers are more and more the target of laws that do make them responsible for producing acceptable results, and they have lost their jobs for not meeting standards. Unfortunately, these results and standards are not black and white, but based on complex and unpredictable changes in faulty human beings, and are affected by many important variables outside of a teacher’s control. Second, consider doctors – we do not hold them accountable for not getting society as a whole to eat better, exercise and stop drinking and smoking. There are indeed other professions that are not held accountable, because it would be impossible, impractical, and immoral to do so. The same should hold for teachers.
2. We keep throwing money at the educational system, but nothing changes – scores on achievement tests haven’t gone up.
The first argument against this myth is that achievement as measured by National Assessment of Educational Progress trends have shown statistically significant gains in recent years, so that there actually have been modest but real improvements. The second counter to this myth is that there are other ways to measure improvement. One example is the drop out rate from high school, which has declined significantly for all income levels since the early 70’s. Saying that an investment only has one measure to show a return just doesn’t work in education like it does in finance.
3. Those who don’t believe that achievement scores should be used to evaluate teachers only care about protecting teachers and their unions.
Statistical errors go in both directions, so teachers abilities are overestimated just as much as they are underestimated. According to studies, over a quarter of all ratings of teachers are incorrect, so we are actually protecting bad teachers as well as good teachers. Most teachers and reformers have many concerns about students, and keeping incompetent teachers without trying to improve them is one.
4. If we agree that the education system is in need of repair, then we have to blame teachers for breaking it in the first place.
First, it is not logical to blame teachers for failure of the system if they have not been given every opportunity and resource they might need to succeed. Then, if they fail, it is clearly their fault. Second, teachers do not work in a vacuum – students are affected by everything that happens outside of the classroom, and that in turn affects their achievement. But teachers have no control over what happens outside of their short time with students, so they can’t be the reason for the failure.
5. Charter schools are the answer to the problems the education system faces.
The population of students that attend charter schools is different than the general public school population, and so are their parents. If you compare the two on the basis of scores without adjusting for those differences, it’s apples and oranges. Besides, only a handful of charter schools are producing the results that get attributed to all of them.
Education reform is not a destination, it’s a process. Part of the process is understanding what needs to be done and what doesn’t. By understanding some of the myths surrounding it, progress may eventually be made.