The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

50 myths and lies about public schools

The book — from which I am going to run a series of excerpts — looks at international tests, teachers, school funding, charter schools and a lot more, including sections on these myths:

* International tests show that the United States has a second-rate education system.
* Teachers are the most important influence in a child’s education.
* Merit pay is a good way to increase the performance of teachers.
* Subject matter knowledge is the most important asset a teacher can possess.
* American K-12 education is being dumbed down.
* The money available to school districts is spread equally across their schools.
* Group projects waste children’s time and punish the most talented.
* School uniforms improve achievement and attendance.
* Schools can teach all students to the point of mastery.
* Education will lift the poor out of poverty and materially enrich our entire nation.

The book was  written by educational psychologist David C. Berliner and education Professor Gene V. Glass.  Berliner is professor of education emeritus at Arizona State University and former dean of the education school there, as well as a past president of the American Educational Research Association and the American Psychological Association’s Division of Educational Psychology. Glass is a research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education and a senior researcher at the National Education Policy Center. Berliner and Glass were assisted in the book project by a group of young academics from their respective universities.

Why did they write the book? The introduction says in part:

The education of America’s children is one of its most important priorities. That message has been lost on many Americans. We cannot count the number of even our close acquaintances who recite warped opinions about our nation’s public schools: they are inferior to private schools; they are among the worst in the world in math and science; teachers should be fired if their students don’t score at the national average, and on and on. Many citizens’ conception of K–12 public education in the United States is more myth than reality. It is essential that the truth replace the fiction.
The mythical failure of public education has been created and perpetuated in large part by political and economic interests that stand to gain from the destruction of the traditional system. There is an intentional misrepresentation of facts through a rapidly expanding variety of organizations and media that reach deep into the psyche of the nation’s citizenry. These myths must be debunked. Our method of debunking these myths and lies is to argue against their logic, or to criticize the data supporting the myth, or to present more credible contradictory data. Where we can, we shall name the promoters of the hoax and point out how their interests are served by encouraging false beliefs.

On his Education in Two Worlds blog, Glass explains why one topic is not included in the book — the Common Core State Standards. Here’s why:

When David Berliner and I and our young Associates pulled together the 50 myths and lies that threaten America’s public schools, we ignored the Common Core. We didn’t forget about it. Who could? It was just that a sense of ennui overtook us and we could not bear to revisit the same dreadful collection of misguided ideas that has tormented educators for decades.


Here’s a short excerpt from the section about a myth entitled: “Private Schools are Better Than Public Schools.”

Policymakers, parents, and the general public have long been told that students who attend private schools receive a better education than their peers in public schools. For many parents who seek to provide their children with a high-quality education, whether for religions or other reasons, private schools may seem worth the associated tuition costs.  This is especially likely if the schools attract other high-performing students and presumably better teachers than nearby public schools. Often parents also assume that private schools possess greater autonomy in terms of curricular design and access to resources (OECD, 2011).
These largely unchallenged assumptions have prompted policies intended to increase private school enrollment through vouchers, particularly for low-income, minority students in urban areas (Lubienski, Crane, & Lubienski, 2008). Yet little evidence exists suggesting that private school students are better prepared academically than their public school counterparts, particularly once other factors attributed to student achievement, such as demographics, family characteristics, and other nonschool factors, are considered (C. & S. T. Lubienski, 2013; S. T. & C. Lubienski, 2005). Despite the lack of evidence, many parents continue to choose private education for their children. About 5.5 million students are enrolled in private schools in grades prekindergarten through 12th grade. Private schools enroll approximately 10% of all elementary and secondary pupils in the United States, a rate that has been reasonably constant for years (Aud et al., 2013).
In reality, private and public schools are serving different populations of students. When compared on characteristics such as race/ethnicity, parents’ level of education, need for special education services, and English language proficiency, private schools enroll fewer disadvantaged students than do public schools (Perie, Vanneman, & Goldstein, 2005). Researchers also compared the respective private and public school populations participating in the National Assessment of  Educational Progress (NAEP) from 2000 to 2005. Private schools enrolled a higher percentage of White students and a lower percentage of Black and Hispanic students than did public schools in all grades (4th, 8th, and 12th) and subject areas (reading, writing, mathematics, and science). In addition, these researchers found that a greater percentage of 8th-grade students who attended private schools reported that at least one parent had postsecondary education, and there were fewer students with disabilities and limited English proficiency enrolled in the private schools. Not surprisingly, over the 5 years studied by these researchers, students in all three types of private schools examined scored, on average, higher on the NAEP than did public school students.
The use of standardized assessment data such as the NAEP actually perpetuates the myth of the “private school effect” without considering other factors attributable to higher student achievement (Lubienski & Lubienski, 2005). Because students’ eligibility for free and reduced lunch typically is used as a proxy for ocioeconomic status (SES), Lubienski and Lubienski (2005) combined multiple variables (e.g., available reading material and computer access in students’ homes, Title I eligibility, parents’ education level, etc.) to more precisely measure the extent to which SES differences account for the private school achievement advantage among elementary students. Consistently higher overall achievement among students, in this case among 4th- and 8th- grade students on the 2000 NAEP mathematics assessment, seemed to validate claims of superior academic achievement among students enrolled in private schools. However, once having accounted for the enrollment of higher-SES students in private schools, and considering other variables such as race/ethnicity and disability status, C. Lubienski and S. T. Lubienski (2013) and S. T. Lubienski and C. Lubienski (2005) found that public school students on average outperformed their peers in private schools.
The inability to measure student achievement over time poses another challenge when relying on NAEP data to compare public and private school student achievement. Using a nationally representative, longitudinal database of students and schools (the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988–2000, or NELS), Wenglinsky (2007) determined that students enrolled in independent (or secular) private high schools, most types of parochial schools, and public magnet or “choice” schools did not perform any better than students in traditional public high schools, when considering family background characteristics.  Interestingly, it also was found that students who had attended private schools were no more likely to go to college, and did not report higher job satisfaction at age 26, than their public school peers. And in addition, private and public school graduates at the same age differed little in their engagement in civic activities.
International assessment data also indicated little difference in achievement between private and public school students, again after SES factors were considered. Based on the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) reading scores in 26 OECD countries and other partner economies, the typical private school student outperformed the typical public school student at a rate equivalent to three-quarters of a year of schooling (OECD, 2011). Approximately one-tenth of this “private school advantage” can be attributed to competition between schools, curricular autonomy, and additional resources; however, the ability of private schools to attract and recruit more socioeconomically advantaged and often high-performing students accounts for more than three-quarters of the difference in achievement (OECD, 2011).
Given that autonomy over curricula and resource allocation accounts for only a small portion of the difference in achievement that is not attributable to SES, it is not surprising that the “private school advantage” seen in PISA assessment results disappears in 13 out of 16 OECD countries when public schools are afforded comparable autonomy and resources (OECD, 2011). Given this evidence, critics suggest that some parents who chose private education for their children are perhaps unwittingly “selecting the greater probability that their child will attend classes with peers of similar or higher socio-economic status, [and] that the resources devoted to those classes, in the form of teachers and materials, will be of higher quality” (OECD, 2011, p. 4).
Despite evidence that suggests private schools, on average, do not offer students a competitive edge in academic performance over their peers in public schools, some parents choose private education based on other perceptions. Charles (2011) found that parental perceptions of private school quality were statistically higher among parents of children in private schools than among parents whose children attended public schools in terms of quality of instruction, support for student learning, school climate, and parent–school relationships. While private school students do not academically outperform students of similar backgrounds in public schools, parents’ perceptions about these other areas of school life prompt advantaged families to choose private education, ultimately increasing racial/ethnic and socioeconomic segregation in public schools. This continuing trend does little to improve educational opportunities for the middle- and low-income students “left behind” in public schools. And it also separates the wealthier students from a more diverse peer group, defeating the goals of a democratic society, which prospers when there is integration across class, race, and ethnic lines.


(Correction: An earlier version incorrectly quoted the book about teachers’ influence on children. It used the word “life” instead of “education.”)