EVERYONE KNOWS that schools are horribly underfunded, that classes are too big, that teachers are paid too little. Everyone knows that we need to expand financial aid and affirmative action to get more minorities and more financially disadvantaged students into college. And everyone knows that accountability testing under No Child Left Behind encourages little more than teaching to the test.
Unfortunately, much of what everyone thinks about education is nothing more than a myth. While these are all plausible stories—with bits of supporting evidence—they are simply not consistent with the facts. Before we can make real progress toward repairing America’s schools, we have to clear away these often-repeated but unsupported claims.
The Money Myth
Most people who assert with conviction that schools are in desperate need of money have no idea how much schools actually receive. Average federal and state spending is almost $500 billion each year for public K-12 schools, or about $10,000 per pupil per year. To put that amount in perspective, it is more than the $430 billion we spent on national defense in 2004. And while we always hear about school budget cuts, per pupil spending—adjusted for inflation—has doubled over the last three decades.
Doubling school spending, however, has not yielded a doubling in student achievement. Math and reading test scores for 17-year-olds are the same today as they were during the Nixon administration, and science test scores have fallen, along with graduation rates. Without stronger incentives for schools to use money more effectively, there is little reason to think that the next doubling of per pupil spending will produce anything different from the last doubling.
The Class-Size Myth
Asking parents whether they would like smaller classes for their children is like asking whether they would like a personal cook. Everyone would say yes, and assume that cook was synonymous with gourmet chef. But if we have to hire a cook for all parents, they’re more likely to get the fry guy from the local burger joint—there just aren’t enough gourmet chefs to go around.
The same problem frustrates broad class-size-reduction mandates. Princeton economist Alan Krueger found that reducing class sizes in a small pilot program in Tennessee led to improved student achievement, but adoption of similar policies on a large scale has produced no benefits. When schools go on hiring binges to satisfy class-reduction mandates, they are forced to dip deep into the labor pool. Intuitively, one imagines that the reduction in teacher quality could offset the benefits of smaller classes. This is exactly what an evaluation by the Rand Corporation of California’s statewide effort to reduce class sizes found: Students in smaller classes experienced learning gains that were no greater than those of students in larger classes.
We have also tried class-size reduction on a national scale with no visible effect. (Much of the spending increases over the last several decades went to hiring more teachers.) The average student-to-teacher ratio dropped from 22.3 in 1970 to 16.1 in 2002, yet student achievement on the national level did not improve during this time. Not only has class-size reduction failed to produce improvements when attempted on a large scale, but reducing class size is a very expensive reform strategy. A one-third reduction in class size requires roughly a one-third increase in spending, because schools have to hire more teachers and build more classrooms.
The Teacher-Pay Myth
If it is teacher quality, instead of class size, that really matters, should we not raise the meager salaries many teachers receive, to recruit better-qualified candidates? Like other education myths, this seemingly plausible argument does not stand up to close scrutiny. Teacher pay, computed on an hourly basis, is not all that meager. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average elementary-school teacher in 2002 made $30.75 per hour. That is considerably more than other public servants, such as firefighters ($17.91) and police officers ($22.64). It is even more than highly skilled professionals, such as biologists ($28.07), mechanical engineers ($29.76), and chemists ($30.68), and just shy of computer scientists ($32.86), dentists ($35.51), and nuclear engineers ($36.16).
Not only do teachers reap benefits like shorter days and longer vacations, but these hourly rates do not include health and retirement benefits, which tend to be higher for public employees than for those in the private sector. Admittedly, these rates do not count hours worked at home, but there is no reason to believe that teachers bring home significantly more work than do other professionals.
Teacher pay is based almost entirely on the number of years taught and the advanced degrees held, not on teachers’ effectiveness. Until we connect salaries to performance, with meaningful merit-pay systems that identify and reward excellent teachers, raising teacher pay is unlikely to have any meaningful effect on teacher quality.
The College-Access Myth
Suburban parents suffering from tuition sticker-shock assume that if sending their own children to college is a financial struggle, then it must be impossible for low-income families. The evidence indicates that the primary barrier to college for low-income and minority students is academic, not financial.
To even be considered for admission to virtually any four-year college, students need to have graduated from high school and completed a college-prep curriculum—usually one that consists of four years of English, three years of math, and two years each of natural science, social science, and a foreign language.
About 4 million students enter high school each year, and of those 4 million only about 2.8 million will graduate. Because it is possible to graduate without having taken the college-prep requirements, only about 1.3 million students meet the formal qualifications to apply to college. The number of students who start college each year is also about 1.3 million. So no matter how much colleges increase financial aid, and no matter how aggressive they are with affirmative-action policies, they cannot significantly increase the number of students going on to college. The situation is akin to a leaking pipe: No matter how wide one opens the spigot, until we fix the pipe itself—the K-12 public-school system—no more water will come out.
The High-Stakes Myth
High-stakes testing, where schools are rewarded or sanctioned based on results, has become universal with passage of No Child Left Behind. Some critics have alleged that attaching stakes to testing forces teachers to teach to the test, and not worry about whether students are really learning. While it is plausible that schools might attempt to polish their numbers without really improving student proficiency, the evidence doesn’t support this claim.
In many places around the country, students take a low-stakes standardized test in addition to the high-stakes one required by No Child Left Behind. Since schools have no incentive to teach to a low-stakes test, or otherwise manipulate the results, we ought to see a divergence between the two tests if the critics are right. But when we compared high- and low-stakes test results in two states and seven school districts, we found that the tests produced very similar results. The consequences of high-stakes testing may indeed put pressure on schools to teach the skills required by the test, but the evidence suggests that it does not encourage any type of manipulation.
There are certainly other examples, and they all point to the same question: Just why are myths so prevalent in education? Part of the problem is that we are very familiar with our schools. We spend years in them, send our children to them, and many of us work for them. We think these direct experiences give us all the evidence we need. Unfortunately, our direct experiences are necessarily limited and distorted by our own participation. Another part of the problem is that education policy necessarily evokes strong emotions because it involves children. We have difficulty assessing rationally the evidence on school spending or teacher pay because we do not want to appear stingy or unsupportive.
But perhaps more important, education policy is dominated by organized interests, such as teachers’ unions, school-board associations and education bureaucracies. These organizations masquerade as advocates for the well-being of children when in fact they are no different from most interest groups: They will advance their agendas with evidence if they can and myths if they must.
We need to stop accepting the myths these groups promote, even though they may seem plausible, may be consistent with our direct experiences, and may affirm our emotional commitment to children. Myths certainly help the adults in the respective interest groups, but they do real harm to children by misdiagnosing our schools’ real problems—and by steering us away from real solutions.