A counterintuitive take on school reform
Before we can fix what's wrong with public education, we have to be absolutely clear on what exactly is wrong, says Jay Greene, author of the new book Education Myths: What Special-Interest Groups Want You to Believe About Our Schoolsand Why It Isn't So. Greene, head of the brand-new department of education reform at the University of Arkansas, examines 18 widely held beliefsthat schools are desperately short of money, that they can't do much to overcome the effects of poverty, that smaller classes are automatically better, that teachers are underpaid, and moreand explains why he thinks they're misguided ideas getting in the way of change.
Not everyone agrees with Greene's conclusions, for sure. Critics says the outspoken Harvard-educated scholar, who has been affiliated since 2000 with the free-market-oriented Manhattan Institute, is hardly a disinterested observer; one reviewer writes that he "enjoys punching left but generally avoids criticizing the right." But Greene has become influential beyond conservative circles: His critique of how public schools miscalculate graduation rates has played an important role in the high school reform debate, and he notes that he doesn't hew to the right's line on issues like bilingual education (his study found that students benefit when they study for part of the day in their native language). He is also a Democrat who says he briefly registered as a Republican only in order to vote for John McCain against George W. Bush in the 2000 GOP primary. Recently, he shared his thinking with U.S.News & World Report Senior Writer Anne McGrath.
Why a book about education myths?
I've found it frustrating when I speak about education to an audience or to reporters that so much of what they see as "fact" is plausible but inconsistent with the bulk of the evidence.
Believing in myths hurts children because if we're not aware of the magnitude of the problem, we're not properly addressing it. The myth that nearly everybody graduates from high school today, for example, means that we're not addressing the fact that 30 percent of our students don't graduate. The most common myth about education is that our schools are desperately in need of more money before they can do better. It's not that more money would be unhelpful, if it were used wiselyit's just that we haven't figured out how to get schools to use money wisely. Just giving schools more money and allowing them to continue to spend it as always blinds us to other things we may need to be doing, like figuring out how to spend money more effectively.
As evidence of ineffective spending, you point out that per-pupil expenditures have doubled over the past 30 years and that achievement scores have remained flat. But doesn't that comparison ignore the fact that schools are dealing with greater demands? Tougher social problems, for instance?
There is no doubt that family background has a profound effect on student achievement, in the same way that obesity has a profound effect on heart disease. But there's a line that people cross all the time between saying "we know background characteristics affect achievement" and saying "background characteristics make success impossible." When people cross that line, they're promoting the "myth of helplessness." We can and should expect schools to make a difference with students, no matter where they begin, in the same way that no matter how overweight or underweight you are, when you go to the doctor we rightly expect the doctor to make a difference. If the doctor can't make a difference, then it's a waste of your money.