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Education myth busters: Do criticisms of U.S. schools rely on distortions?



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University of Georgia professor and frequent AJC Get Schooled contributor Peter Smagorinsky discusses an interesting new book exposing the misperceptions and distortions about America's schools. 

By Peter Smagorinsky

A years back there was a public service ad on TV that featured a teenaged boy discussing a major event of the day with his friends. He made his points convincingly because he understood the issues better than they did. At the end of the ad, he turned away, and the camera focused on his back pocket, in which he carried a book. The ad implicitly conveyed Thomas Jefferson’s belief that “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

I loved that ad.

If I were to pick one book that people should have in their back pockets when talking about education, it’d be 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten American’s Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education by David C. Berliner and Gene V. Glass.

Berliner has, for decades, provided counter-arguments to deceits designed to undermine public education, including his coauthored 1995 book The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, And the Attack on America's Public Schools, written to counter the politicized rhetoric of decline surrounding the schools of two decades ago.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose:  The more things change, the more they remain the same.

My goal here is not to provide a comprehensive summary or review of 50 Myths & Liesthere’s one here if that’s what you’re looking for. Rather, in this brief space, I’ll provide a sample of what the authors achieve in this highly readable volume.

Berliner and Glass systematically dismantle a range of bogus beliefs surrounding schools, exposing the deceptions that have served to construct an image of education quite different from its realities. They do use test data to buttress claims, such as their conclusion that when factors such as poverty are controlled for, U.S. students’ test scores rank fairly high in international comparisons.

At the same time, they often question the manner in which test data are used in both innocently wrong and profoundly fraudulent ways.

Let’s take that most seemingly objective of disciplines, mathematics, and that most elementary of mathematical operations, addition. 1+1=2, right? But Berliner and Glass demonstrate how solving this seemingly straightforward and unambiguous problem is a little more complicated than it seems.

They give the example of answering 3+5=? correctly. Simple, right? But in fact, 2nd graders presented with this problem solve it much more easily when it is arranged vertically than horizontally, such that 3 + 5 = ? is a lot harder to solve than

 

                                                                                                        3

                                                                                                      +5

                                                                                                       ---

                                                                                                         ?

That might not make much sense to an adult, but 2nd graders, not adults, are the ones tested through these problems. Pass rates on tests of the same addition problem presented vertically and horizontally were radically different: 86% to 46%. For subtraction problems, the rates were 78% and 30%.

Berliner and Glass could have made their example even more complicated. 

In one study, the researchers compared grocery shoppers performing mathematical operations both in the supermarket and on paper and pencil tests. In the supermarket, shoppers were virtually infallible in their pricing of comparable products for best buys (98% correct calculations). Yet these same people, when tested on mathematical problems requiring the same type of computations on a pencil-and-paper test, answered 59% of the problems correctly.

This example illustrates well how complex teaching, learning, and assessment can be. In the policy world, however, the overriding belief is that teaching and learning are as simple as 3 + 5 = 8. But how that problem is presented has a lot to do with how likely someone will arrive at a correct solution.

If you’re a teacher, you’d better hope your kids didn’t get the horizontal problem structure. If they did, then presto, you are a lousy teacher.

People’s assumptions about the objective nature of math problems typically follow from a lack of knowledge about problem formation. If all we faced were a lack of knowledge, then good information would solve most problems.

As the Berliner and Glass detail, however, ideology and greed often lead to aggressively and persistently advanced lies and hoaxes that deliberately obscure or distort the truth in order to promote the financial interests of those committing the fraud.

Such chicanery is often at work among the new edupreneurial class. BASIS charter schools in Arizona, for instance, have earned a national Top 10 ranking from Newsweek,The Washington Post, and U.S. News & World Report. They do so by running off students who do not perform at levels valued in these rankings. Consider the enrollments by grade for one recent year in the BASIS Tucson charter school:

Grade 5: 121

Grade 6: 125

Grade 7: 125

Grade 8: 102

Grade 9: 58

Grade 10: 57

Grade 11: 34

Grade 12: 21

The 121 Grade 5 students were not randomly admitted, as charter school propaganda often claims, but had to go through an admissions process that screened out weak students. From that select pool, about 80% were further weeded out to produce the high achievers who remained for senior year.

As the authors tartly note, “Slow students are counseled to go off and lower the statistics of regular high schools,” and their scores are in turn used as evidence that charter schools offer a superior education.

There’s a wry expression among researchers who have become jaded about the belief that everything can be reduced to statistics: “If you can’t measure it, measure it anyway.” Perhaps no field is captured better by this saying than education.

I have provided a mere taste of how Berliner and Glass eviscerate common beliefs about schools and the machinations through which they are manufactured and offered to the public. If you want to talk about education such that your opinion is informed by such realities, you might invest $25 in this exposé of how education has been corrupted and commodified to serve the narrow interests of an opportunistic few.

I love this book.