8 Educational Myths

myth-v-truthI run across all kinds of lists, I’ve examined a lot of them in the past and here is another, 8 claimed educational myths, the answers to which also seem to be myths.  I find it funny that people can look at supposed myths and then get it so entirely wrong on their own. It just shows that there are agendas everywhere and people who want things to be true are likely to simply declare it true without showing their work.

Almost immediately, I find that these supposed “myths” were just made up, some out of whole cloth.  These were never part of any kind of validated study, most of them are just presented as “just so” stories, strawmen to be torn down by the writer. I’d think that in order for these to be “myths”, they’d have to be something claimed to be true and accepted as fact by at least a vocal group of individuals somewhere.  But hey, I’m just being rational, it’s a character flaw of mine.

Therefore, here’s my take on the 8 Myths of Education.  I’ve copied much of the text from the original site here to make it easier on readers, but feel free to visit the original site, it’s linked above.

Myth #1: Teachers Are the Most Important Influence on a Child’s Education

Of course teachers are extremely important. Good teachers make a significant difference in achievement. But research indicates that less than 30 percent of a student’s academic success is attributable to schools and teachers. The most significant variable is socioeconomic status, followed by the neighborhood, the psychological quality of the home environment, and the support of physical health provided. There are others, but the bottom line is that teachers have far less power to improve student achievement than do varied outside factors.

Sorry, the most significant variable in a student’s education are their parent(s).  Parents who push their children to succeed in the classroom are going to be much more of a factor than socioeconomic status.  According to a study by the National Education Association (NEA), regardless of family income and background, involved parents will make students attend school more regularly, pass their classes with higher grades, have better social skills with improved behavior and be more likely to go on to college.  Teachers can make parental involvement more likely by keeping in close contact with parents and informing them, not only of the performance of their children, but the importance of keeping the performance up.  I think parental involvement needs to be a requirement for participation in social programs.  If you’re going to get a government check, it is your job to ensure your child is getting a good education.  Why should we just hand you money if you’re going to fail at your most important job?

Myth #2: Homework Boosts Achievement

There is no evidence that this is true. In Finland, students have higher achievement with little or no homework and shorter school hours. The more important factor is what students experience during the school day. Project-based learning, as one example, places the emphasis on what is done during the day. If students choose to do more after hours, that’s their choice. There also may sometimes be other good reasons to assign homework, but there should be no illusion that homework will help increase student achievement.

Notice how there are no links to any of these claims?  That’s okay, I can do my own legwork.  It’s true that Finland has an extremely successful educational system but that’s because the government is doing all of the heavy lifting.  It pays for absolutely everything including travel, food, etc.  Finland is also a very small country with a population just over 5 million, that’s less than the population of New York City alone.  Further, you have a much different cultural expectation there than you do here.  I’m not saying that one system is better than the other, I just don’t think the Finnish system is going to work in the United States.  In Finland, all teachers must have a Master’s degree to teach.  Here, we have problems getting teachers of any kind into many schools, especially inner city schools where some teachers end up because they can find no posting anywhere better.  Yes, it would be great if the American cultural norm was toward education and responsibility and all of that, that’s exactly what conservatism would hope for.  It just isn’t and it isn’t going to change magically.  Wishful thinking isn’t impressive, sorry.  If you like the Finnish system, hope a plane for Finland.

Myth #3: Class Size Does Not Matter

In an average high school, one teacher is responsible for 100-150 students on any given day. Students inevitably get lost in the shuffle. Research evidence strongly indicates that a decrease in the number of students has a qualitative pedagogical impact. When reductions occur in elementary classrooms, evidence has shown that the extra individualized attention and instruction appear to make it more likely for these students to graduate at higher rates from high school. Affluent families more frequently opt for districts or for private schools with smaller classes. It should come as no surprise that larger class sizes may disproportionally impact the children of the poor. Therefore, reducing class sizes will in fact result in more learning.

Seriously, who has ever said that class size doesn’t matter?  Anyone?  It isn’t like there’s a link to a study here that claims it and I was unable to find specific data corroborating his “100-150 student” claim.  I suspect like just about everything else here, it’s made up.  Where class size becomes an issue is where teachers are so overwhelmed that they cannot give individual attention to students needing help. However, in a lecture class, even given the high end of the claim and 7 classes per day, that’s only a hair over 21 students in each class.  21 students is not excessive.

Myth #4: A Successful Program Works Everywhere

There is significant evidence against the idea that a program successful in one school or district should be imported elsewhere and expected to work well. Context is the key variable. Programs must be related to the makeup of the school district and/or the specific school. Approaches to education that are marketed for nationwide use may be excellent yet totally inappropriate for some districts. A program has to fit the specific needs of the schools and classrooms in the district, and a careful needs assessment coupled with a thorough examination should determine whether to adopt a program, not the success of the program elsewhere.

It depends on the program and, as expected, the writer provides no examples or links.  Personally, I think it’s much more damaging to treat people in different districts differently and pretending that this group over here is inherently better or worse than that group over there.  Treating people like they are people, having the same basic expectations of everyone and holding them all to similar standards can only help make everyone equal.  To do otherwise just lowers the standards of problem schools and students, further giving them reasons not to care if they succeed at all.

Myth #5: Zero-Tolerance Policies Are Making Schools Safer

This strikes me as one of the most colossally wrong-headed and destructive of the myths. Berliner and Glass describe numerous examples of this policy being implemented destructively, including one in which two students were suspended because one shared her inhaler with a friend who was having an asthma attack. Most importantly, there is no evidence that zero tolerance policies decrease school violence. To the contrary, the authors note that “suspensions and expulsions have far-reaching implications for a student’s academics and can set them up for failure in their personal lives.” Zero tolerance policies have resulted in school officials routing record numbers of students through the juvenile justice system, students who are then more likely to also end up in an adult prison later on. And, not surprisingly, all of the unintended effects associated with zero-tolerance policies in schools are multiplied for non-whites.

The authors also give examples of some schools that are learning from this research. As one example, after the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, teachers, parents, and administrators are focused on crisis preparedness and the politics of the gun debate, not on stricter policing of students.

There are good zero tolerance policies and idiotic ones.  This writer focuses only on the idiotic ones.  It is unfortunate that most of the stupid policies spring from liberal minds.  There’s a good look at political correctness run amuck here.  There are plenty of really good policies though that can be applied rationally and intelligently.  It doesn’t tend to be the policies that are a problem, it’s the application.  I see no problem with having a prohibition against students having firearms on campus. I cannot imagine a single case where a student ought to need a gun for anything.  It’s where idiot administrators start considering kids making gun shapes with their fingers or drawing things with guns as a violation of the policy that the stupidity starts.  I also see no reason why students should have illegal drugs on campus either.  It’s moronic to widen that definition to prescription medications with a doctor’s note.  These are where the problems begin, when teachers and administrators turn off their rational though processes.

Myth #6: Money Doesn’t Matter

It’s a popular argument that, while we’re spending more money than ever, test scores remain stagnant. This is a destructive myth widely shared by those who oppose better funding of our schools. Yet the research is clear.When school districts with sufficient resources are compared with those without, achievement outcomes are definitively higher in the wealthier districts. The authors note that it makes a significant difference in terms of student achievement when higher salaries are used to attract more experienced and better-educated teachers. Schools that serve the poor are more likely to retain well-paid teachers, despite the challenging circumstances they deal with each day. Since class size does matter, as we’ve seen, adequate funding makes it possible to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes. All of these assertions are strongly supported by research. Additionally, the authors cite Linda Darling-Hammond‘s report on new research from Finland, Singapore, and other countries that provides “striking evidence that spending more, and targeting that spending at students who come to school with the fewest resources, can have a dramatic positive impact on a nation’s overall educational outcomes.”

Of course, it is also possible that the school districts spending more money are located in communities in which socioeconomic factors and neighborhood quality play an important role.

While yes, I will agree that school districts in more affluent areas do have more money to spend because the property taxes from which school funding comes are higher, that doesn’t mean that education is impossible in any but the most wealthy districts.  We see stories all the time of people coming out of the worst ghetto schools and doing very well because they have a passion for learning and the support of their family.  I get really sick of people pretending that the school makes the difference. There are plenty of people whose parents pay tens of thousands of dollars for an education in the finest, most expensive schools, only to have their kids fail out because they spent all of their time getting drunk and not doing the work.  I’d assume that a parent who pays $168k for an MBA at the Columbia Business School, the most expensive college program currently in America, and their child flunks because they were lazy, would have plenty of reason to be pissed.  It isn’t the money, it isn’t the school, it’s the student and their dedication to learning that matters.

Myth #7: College Admissions Are Based on Academic Achievement and Test Scores

Berliner and Glass’ findings are disturbing. Many colleges and universities practice admissions by category. One example is athletics. The most significant variable at 30 of the most selective universities was discovered to be legacy (whether a family member previously attended the university). Wealthy parents who contribute development funds further increase the likelihood of admission. This doesn’t mean that universities don’t pay attention to student achievement in their admissions process. It does mean that there is preferential treatment in admissions that relegates academic accomplishments to a lower priority.

Yes, there is preferential treatment in college admissions.  However, it is a relatively small issue and there are many, many universities, particularly local universities, that don’t practice any sort of preferential treatment.  Overall, it is academic success that determines your likelihood of getting into a college.  You might not get into Harvard or Yale without connections, but there, as of the last figures I saw, 4,168 colleges in the United States.  Find one to go to.  Stop whining.

Myth #8: Merit Pay for Teachers Improves Student Performance

The full argument is that merit pay is a good way to increase teacher performance, because teachers should be evaluated on the basis of student performance, and rewarding or punishing schools for student performance will improve our nation’s schools. However, evidence suggests that competition between teachers is counterproductive and interferes with collaboration. Measuring teacher effectiveness is very difficult, and no simple measures effectively do this. There is no evidence that merit pay correlates with improved student achievement, but there is strong evidence that basing teacher salaries on student performance is counterproductive and ethically wrong — it frequently punishes teachers and schools for socioeconomic factors over which they have no control.

Nobody is arguing for cutthroat competition because this isn’t a battle between teachers and only the top dog gets the bone, it’s an argument that teachers that get high grades in their own individual classroom ought to get additional compensation for getting high marks.  It isn’t like only one teacher in every school can get recognized, every single one can get a bonus if they meet the standards.  In fact, it likely works better if all of the teachers collaborate together, sharing information and techniques for success.  This guy is completely and totally misinformed.  It isn’t about salaries, it’s about bonus potential.  How he can argue that it’s ethically wrong to reward teachers for superior work is beyond me.  Is he assuming that teachers who do not perform are going to get somehow penalized?  Or that not getting a bonus is somehow a punishment?  That’s utterly bizarre in either case.  No one deserves special compensation for excellence unless they are actually excellent.  This sounds like a strange liberal delusion to me.

Nobody, most certainly not I, has said that the American educational system doesn’t have problems that need to be addressed. However, people don’t have to make up myths about it, the problems are well known and the biggest issue, at least from where I’m sitting, is political.  You have two political systems (although they’re looking increasingly identical these days) who are fighting over indoctrinating kids to become mindless zombie voters when they grow up.  You have people who treat the schools like brainwashing camps rather than places to educate our next generation intelligently, rationally and proactively.  Nobody in the government wants smart kids.  Smart kids see through political bullshit.  The school boards and the teacher unions and the state legislatures are trying hard to produce kids that do what they say and think what they want them to think.  So many of the problems listed here, even the ones that are legitimate, are so far down the line of credible issues, we’re not even in spitting distance of being able to address them.  There’s no need to make up myths and pretend to have answers.  Most people never bother to address the biggest problems in the room because often, they, themselves, are part of that problem.

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