Serviceable Myths about School Reform

Even with the shift to the political right across the nation in last week’s election, both Republicans and Democrats, continue to tell a familiar story about American schools. That well-worn story often repeated by self-confident reformers (or “reformy types”) can be reduced to three statements.

1.U.S. children and youth have done poorly on international tests in reading, math, and science.

2. Students in other nations not only score better than U.S. students but also, upon graduation, possess competence and skills that surpass American workers thereby threatening America’s global competitiveness.

3. U.S. students do poorly on these international tests and in competition with workers elsewhere because the nation’s schools are broken. They can be fixed by holding practitioners accountable for student performance on tests, getting effective teachers through better recruitment and evaluation, having leaders who accept no excuses from practitioners, paying for performance based upon student test scores, and creating more charter schools

End of story.

Of the three statements in this story, only the first is a fact. The rest are myths, ones that are serviceable to policy elites but damaging to public confidence in America’s schools.

1. U.S. students have scored in the middle to lower ranges of international tests in reading, math, and science. See here, here, and here. Vigorous and critical analyses of these various tests and their consequences for policy making have rebutted “schools-are-broken” critics. Nonetheless, I do not dispute the fact of U.S. students scoring where they do on these tests.

Statements 2 and 3, however, are myths, lacking substantial evidence, that have been largely accepted through repetition.

2. The U.S.’s position in the global economy, again and again, has been attributed to weak human capital created by the schools–the historical “educationalizing” of problems that has become a national tic–since the Nation at Risk report in 1983. A steady diet of pundit Thomas Friedman, publisher Rupert Murdoch, and press releases from the Business Roundtable would convince most readers that CEO decisions in managing their businesses, technological choices, swings in financial markets, and global boom-and-bust cycles had little to do with the U.S. economy. While putting onto public schools the solution for economic downturns, rather than business executives, is a loony non-sequitur, it is a victory in shifting blame from corporate leaders’ flawed decisions to the shoulders of educators. Statement 2, then, is a serviceable myth.

3. It is also a myth that all U.S. schools are broken. Surely,most urban schools are low-performing and in many cases have earned the label of “dropout factories.” Washington, D.C, for example, would be a poster child for such districts. Moreover, although islands of excellence in urban districts do exist (including D.C.), they are seldom stable over time. Where the myth-making enters is when urban schools are conflated with all U.S. schools. Not only I but many others have pointed out that the U.S. has a three-tiered system of schooling where the top two tiers have mostly “successful” schools by current standards. The bottom tier contains failing urban schools. Thus, all U.S. schools are not failures by any standard.

As for the inventory of current reforms that are deemed precious by venture capitalists, edu-preneurs, and political leaders from both parties, Diane Ravitch has laid out a compelling counter-story to the popular one on charters, accountability, and other reforms that is fully vetted with evidence drawn from many sources. Pay-4-performance schemes and the use of test scores to evaluate teachers also have been critiqued severely by experts who are far more familiar with the innards of these “reforms” than the champions who promote they ceaselessly.

And “no excuses?” The departure of Chancellor Michelle Rhee from Washington, D.C., may not yet signal the end of the simple-minded view that teachers and principals, by themselves, can erase the ill-effects of poverty, inattention to children at home, and neighborhood pathologies by setting high expectations and academic standards. But I sure hope that the “No excuses” ideology spouted by self-confident reformers and based upon ignorance, will give way to a more complex view of schools and families and community agencies working together.

In sum, then, the familiar myth-filled story justifying current school reform while inaccurate and even self-deceiving is, nonetheless, serviceable. The myths keep alive the ideology of contemporary policy-driven reformers that they are saving all American schools–when they are not; the myths provide activist urban reformers with useful work by letting them dispense advice to hard-working educators–even when so many teachers and principals ignore them; the myths help entrepreneurs and policymakers alike, from both sides of the political spectrum, dream of a better future for urban children and youth than the one they face now. Dreams, however, that deceive the dreamers hardly help those who are the objects of those dreams.


Filed under Reforming schools

7 responses to “Serviceable Myths about School Reform

  1. The myth that the schools are to blame for the damage to the economy now, suggests that the teachers we had in schools forty years ago — when the late-50’s-year-old executives running companies today were in school — were much worse than the ones today. Yet it is those self-same executives who have been manipulating and redesigning American curricula and schools from “on high” while at the same time leaching wealth and community feeling from the realms around the schools. Shifting blame to the teachers is easy, but also not right.

  2. Probably the smartest tactic of the Bush administration was starving the NSF Education Directorate of research funds.

    On the other hand, Obama’s election sent the Center for Competitive Enterprise and the Heritage Foundation into a defensive posture.

  3. Well said. Reminds me of Karl Popper: “Science must begin with myths, and the criticism of myths”

    Effective education policy should start the same way.

  4. Larry,

    This post is so important for all educators to read. At EdCampKC this weekend, I asked educators to speak up. When I next engage in this conversation, I will use this post.

    Thank you.

    Info from my edcampkc conversation at

  5. Pingback: The Spreadsheet Solution | The Compass Point

  6. One of the big reasons our scores in international tests are as low as they are is because we have everyone take these tests. In other countries students are tracked and weeded out, put on different paths, and only their best and brightest take these tests. Our scores on international tests should be something we are proud of because of our inclusive nature- not something we use to punish ourselves.
    Great post!

    • You’re in DC. Talk to Patrick Gonzales about PISA and TIMSS testing and how important the “Everybody tests” story is.

      Minnesota tested as a top ten nation on math, as did Massachusetts. Does that mean they are that much better because they test “all” students? It’s part of the conservative narrative we hear countless times and we begin to think it makes sense. Living in DC you know for sure that teaching and learning are very complex and that Rhee’s story was too simplistic to be real.

      Canada and Australia have some things to teach us that may turn out to be as important as what we have learned from the high performing countries.

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