A review of Education Myths: What Special Interest Groups Want You to Believe About Our Schools—And Why It Isn't So, by Jay P. Greene, with Greg Forster and Marcus A. Winters
In Education Myths, Jay Greene pulls off an impressive feat: an examination of complicated education research that is both engaging and useful to the general reader. In doing so, he convincingly disproves 18 common beliefs about public education, ranging from the Class Size Myth ("small classes would produce big improvement") and the Teacher Pay Myth ("teachers are badly underpaid") to the Graduation Myth ("nearly all students graduate from high school") and the Segregation Myth ("private schools are more racially segregated than public schools"). Greene is an outspoken critic of existing educational practices and a defender of both vouchers and No Child Left Behind. But Education Mythsis no polemic. It is a serious piece of applied policy research.
Greene's first chapter, "The Money Myth," attacks the conventional wisdom that public schools are chronically underfunded. He observes that inflation-adjusted per pupil spending doubled between the end of World War II and the mid-1950s, doubled again between the mid-1950s and early 1970s, and doubled yet again between 1970 and 2000. Contrary to the conventional bumper-sticker wisdom, we now spend more on public education than on the military. Yet over the past 35 years test scores have remained flat. Why have large increases in spending done so little to boost scores or narrow the black-white achievement gap? Greene shows that neither special education nor increasing rates of poverty and single-parent families are to blame (myths #2 and #3, respectively). The fault, he argues, is not in our stars, nor in how much we spend—but in how we spend it.
Reducing class size (myth #4) is one expensive (multi-billion dollar) reform that has largely failed. A widely publicized Tennessee experiment did indicate that a reduction in class size can improve test scores—but one time only, and marginally so. At the same time, decreasing class size requires hiring more teachers, which, as California discovered, reduces the quality and experience of the educational workforce.
Greene is even more skeptical of efforts to improve teachers' academic credentials. Not only is taking more "education" courses unlikely to improve classroom performance, but bolstering such requirements tends to "drive promising candidates away from teaching, while attracting candidates who are good at getting certificates rather than good at teaching." This is just one of the ways in which the perverse incentive structure in public schools—especially pay scales—discourages those with energy, ambition, and intelligence from entering and remaining in the profession. In his conclusion, Greene argues that education's central challenge is figuring out how to use incentives to produce better results.
Since Greene defends high stakes testing (myths #10-12) and school choice (myths #13-18), and criticizes teachers' unions in virtually every chapter, he will doubtless be defamed in some quarters as a "conservative." Ironically, these days liberals are the ones defending the educational status quo, while so-called conservatives demand structural change. Indeed, one might define a contemporary liberal as one who champions personal choice in all realms of life except the education of (other people's) children. Defending the status quo often leads liberals, incongruously, to underplay the extent to which public education fails racial minorities. One of the most depressing chapters in Greene's book shows that graduation rates are far lower than most professional educators admit, especially for minority students (myth #8): "Only 51 percent of black students and 52 percent of Hispanic students graduated from high school with a regular diploma in the class of 2001." Perhaps Greene's greatest achievement is to explain why we should be deeply disturbed at the performance of our public schools, but not despair over the prospect of improving them.