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'Myths & Lies' That Threaten Our Schools: An Interview With David Berliner & Gene Glass

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This summer, I'll be alternating between publishing thematic collections of past posts (ones on Student Motivation, Implementing The Common Core,  Teaching Reading & WritingParent Involvement, and Teaching Social Studies have already been published) and sharing interviews with authors of recent books I consider important and useful for us educators (Meenoo Rami was the first, co-authors Carmen Fariña & Laura Kotch were the second, Warren Berger was the third, and Annette Breaux and Todd Whitaker were the fourth).

For today's author interview, David C. Berliner and Gene V. Glass have offered to answer a few questions about their book, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America's Public Schools.

LF: You make a clear distinction between what you call school myths and hoaxes.  Could you elaborate on what you see as the differences between the two, along with providing some examples?

David C. Berliner and Gene V. Glass:

A hoax is a deliberate attempt to deceive, and is more elaborate than a simple lie. Hoaxes are stories of doubtful veracity, constructed to create a desired opinion in the mind of the hearer. The Piltdown Man was a hoax. American education has not had to contend with many hoaxes, but the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) to privatize our public schools is fertile ground for growing a few hoaxes. Slick TV ads for online charter schools - like those run by K12 Inc., for example - that show smiling children and happy mothers negotiating an education on a laptop on the kitchen table approach the mendacity of a full-blown hoax.

Unlike hoaxes, myths arise from our well-intentioned attempts to understand and generalize our personal experiences. Unfortunately, our personal experience is a poor guide to the creation of general knowledge. We may have held our son or daughter back in the 3rd grade for a second year and the child turned a couple Fs into Cs. When we conclude that retaining children in grade is a beneficial practice, we contribute to the myths of The Benefits of Grade Retention.

LF: What do you see as the two or three most dangerous "myths and lies" about schools and why do you think they are so dangerous?   

David C. Berliner and Gene V. Glass:                          

The grand myth from which others flow is that America's public schools do poorly compared to other countries. Some of our schools do not do well, but it is a bald face lie to say America's schools in general do poorly. On the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, and on the Program for International Student Assessment, U.S. students attending schools where poverty rates of families were under 25% did terrific. The children in this group were among the worlds' leaders! Even where poverty rates were between 25-50%, our students did well, scoring above the international average. So about half our public school students are doing fine. But others are not. Children do not test well in schools where more than half the families live in poverty. We run an apartheid-lite system of schooling. Housing patterns determine school composition and how those schools score on achievement tests. It's a myth that we cannot compete well in international tests.

A second myth is dangerous because it reveals that many of America's politicians and school leaders are not only ignorant but cruel! This is the myth that holding a child back who is not doing well academically is good for the child. Retention is law in about a dozen states. But a large body of research indicates that for the vast majority of children retention in grade has either no benefit, or is harmful..

Second, a rationale for retention policies is that poor reading in third grade predicts later school failure. But a study of 12 young students with serious reading problems, dyslexics all, showed that eleven did not learn to read well until they were between 10 and 12 years old, and one did not learn to read until 12th grade.  Among these slow learners, all of whom would have been held back in Florida and Arizona, were nine who published scholarly works, and one who became a Nobel laureate. A child not doing well by third grade requires attention, not retention.

Third, retention policies disproportionately affect those who are poor, male, learning English, or children of color. Middle class white children are rarely held back. Fourth, flunking changes family dynamics. Parents and siblings change their treatment of, and aspirations for, the child identified as having "flunked." Fifth, being held back is associated with higher rates of dropping out of high school. Thus, the costs of retention go up since, as adults, these children are likely to be costly to their communities. Sixth, children held back say it feels as bad as losing a parent or going blind. It's an overwhelmingly negative event in their lives. Holding them back adds cruelty to ignorance. Seventh, the same costs expended for an extra year of education for the child held back could be better. A certified reading specialist, working twice a week as a tutor would have greater success in improving a child's academic performance. There is no more beneficial treatment than tutoring, and in this case it is cheaper and more humane than flunking a child. No education policy reflects worse on America's politicians and educators than retaining students in grade.

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LF: What are a couple of "myths and lies" that didn't make the list?

David C. Berliner and Gene V. Glass:

We didn't challenge the Common Core State Standards. We were not all against them, though we did think there were some issues with them. Most of all we were concerned with the lies that were told about them. For example, we felt that The Common Core will not raise international test scores because the problem is clearly not our curriculum. Our students who are not in schools that serve large numbers of families in poverty actually do quite well in international competitions--see above--and our Asian students, of any income level do, remarkably well. This means our admittedly uncoordinated curriculum is not at all inadequate. So selling the Common Core as a way to do better on international tests is bogus.

We also felt that the Common Core will not grow the economy, as some have claimed. The economy is a function of the creativity, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship of our workers and company executives, along with tax codes and government incentives. Sadly, it is the many admirable characteristics of young American adults that could easily be killed by an education system built around the Common Core standards and its associated tests. That will occur if the tests of the CCSS tests are little  different from those that came before, tests of memorization that promoted little more than coaching of the most mind-numbing type. Further, if high stakes are attached to those tests, as currently demanded by the federal government and most states, the test will be corrupted, as will all the people who work with the tests. 

We felt that the Common Core will not create high paying jobs. Investment of capital creates jobs. Contrary to naïve beliefs, merely educating a person does not necessarily create a job for that person, if it did there would be much lower unemployment in many poor nations around the world. In fact, one middle-class job that might be affected negatively by the Common Core is teaching. The salaries of teachers can be driven down with standardization of the curriculum because the job of the teacher becomes more like training and less like educating. Trainers are cheaper to hire than teachers. Further, because of curriculum standardization, the Common Core promotes use of cyber-curricula, making experienced teachers less necessary and certainly less costly. 

We felt that the the Common Core may not lead to a more democratic society. While the "rigor" of the CCSS is applauded by many, the application of "rigor" is sometimes used to keep poor and minority students out of college preparatory and AP courses, and to foster dropouts. Rigor is often a code word for discrimination.

We felt that the the Common Core will not reduce the achievement gap. The standards were not written by experienced educators, and so they do not consider the individual needs of students of varying abilities who populate the classes in our public schools.  Some students might need to be challenged more, some students need to be challenged with a different curriculum, and there are those who face challenges in learning at the levels expected at each grade. The CCSS do not have much to say about these realities of classroom life.

Furthermore, the testing accompanying the Common Core will limit the states' abilities to develop unique local curriculum, as promised by the developers of the CCSS. This is likely to occur because teachers and schools will be judged on tests that match the standards not the local curriculum. This likelihood suggests, as well, that the U.S. system of education might end up having more homogeneity in its outcomes than is desirable. If all 50 million or more students are learning the same things, it might be limiting the potential of our nation. Our nation has to deal with a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. To confront such a world we might be better served with a broad spectrum of students' knowledge and skills than by a narrower set of the type promoted by the CCSSs.

Other myths we might want to do more with include

The high school exit exam myth. They might be close to worthless.

Single sex classes. More on that has come out. They don't seem to do much.

Readability formulas seem to have lots of bunkum associated with them.

Lots more on VAMs--really junk science.

LF: What is your advice to those who want to fight against these "myths and lies"?

David C. Berliner and Gene V. Glass:

Our advice to those that want to engage in the debates needed to change the way some things are follows:

Become more politically active. Education is often the biggest budget item in states and local districts so unless you are helping to make those decisions education will get targeted, especially by the rich and the old who don't want to pay taxes, especially for young children of color. Run for school board in your own or in neighboring districts.

Join community organizations that are concerned with the schools: The Lions, Rotary, Elks, the woman's auxiliary to the Royal Order of Moose, and the like. Make sure that those people know what is going on in the schools. 

Refuse to give capricious tests; tell parents to keep their kids home at standardized test time; get more militant: "A profession of sheep will be ruled by wolves."

Write letters to the editor, op ed pieces, attend political meetings, especially school board meetings when you can, and speak out.

Shame people who say really stupid things, like "teachers are overpaid," "we have lots of incompetent teachers," "teachers don't work hard," and "poverty is no excuse." Make fun of them. They deserve that. 

LF: During my nineteen year community organizing career, we always kept in mind the organizers axiom attributed to Saul Alinsky, "The price of criticism is a constructive alternative."  There's an ongoing discussion among critics of many present-day "school reforms" about balancing what we're "against" with what we're "for."  Though you include some suggestions for better alternatives, I'm curious if you ever considered framing your book as "Fifty Policies That Work" instead of "50 Myths and Lies"?  Was your decision to choose the latter for rhetorical, political or other reasons?

David C. Berliner and Gene V. Glass:

Here are just a few of the things we are for: We never wanted to get into policies that work because we are probably better critics  than advocates, but also because the single biggest problem we see is a HUGE one. It's the expansion of the middle class through decent employment, along with the promotion of dignity for workers and their families. That's more than an educational issue, but that's what would help our schools a lot. But we are for some particular things:

What we are for is an enormous change in housing patterns. Putting low-income people with low-income people is apartheid-lite. We need more mixed SES housing.

We are for dual language schools.   

We are for higher taxes on the wealthy and some corporations to fund the commons--teachers, police, fire fighters, our army and its veterans, park rangers, and all others who make a democracy work.  Decent pay and enormous respect for those who serve the commons gets us higher quality public servants and remarkably low levels of corruption.

We are for an enriched but not an academically pressured childhood. We like play. We invented childhood 150 tears ago--lets not throw it out just because many Asians are willing to.

We are for an inspectorate made up of excellent experienced teachers (perhaps Nationally Board Certified Teachers) to regularly supplement principals visits to classrooms. They should both advise and, if needed, help remove teachers from the classroom. This requires a number of observers, and a number of observations, to reliably assess teachers and is therefore expensive. But it is likely to be less expensive than a court fight over teacher tenure. Professions are partly defined by having the right to police themselves and determine due process. Maybe it's time to try doing this.

We are for an expansion of the meaning of an education budget. We'd include expansion of high quality early childhood education, summer educational programs that are not just for remediation, paying a part of the budget to local people who run local youth organizations, running after school cross age tutoring programs and after school clubs with paid instructors, such as robotics clubs, school news clubs, and of course sports. Evidence exists that each of these activities helps youth develop in both academic and pro-social ways as they mature. 

LF: Is there anything I haven't asked that you'd like to share?

David C. Berliner and Gene V. Glass:

We have written too much already. But we did this book because we want to start a thousand conversations. Public education in the next few decades could be lost if it is not a focus of attention and support. That would be a shame. We always think of Lawrence Cremin when we discuss education. He said that when the history of the United States is written in the middle of the 21st century, and the question is raised about why the US became the dominant power in the world at the end of the 20th century, the answer would be found in the 19th century. It was not inventions like the Gatling gun, cotton gin, steamboat, telegraph or telephone: It was the invention of the common school. We believe that. These schools need to be helped survive the privatization movement both because they work well where poverty is not the killer of achievement that it has become, and because a successful public school system may allow us to keep our fragile democracy. 

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LF: Thanks, David and Gene!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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