Posted in Public Ed

Myths Taken as Reality

The Myth of Failing Schools

There are so many falsehoods and myths circulating about public education. The most important…and least true…is that public schools in America are failing. I have my own answer to that particular lie…

There’s no such thing as a failing public school…only a failing social and governmental environment surrounding it.

The local, state and national governments must take responsibility for the failing environment in which a school finds itself. Schools don’t have any control over poverty, hunger, joblessness, illness, violence and other outside influences which have a deleterious effect on student achievement. To call a school which finds itself in such a situation “failing” is to abrogate the responsibility of government. To be sure, school leaders have the responsibility to keep order, hire qualified staff, and provide an appropriate curriculum, and in that sense, perhaps a school can be failing. However, if the outside environment in which students spend the bulk of their time is working in opposition to learning, then there’s not much that schools can do without adequate resources.

Debunking the Myths

Valerie Strauss continues to provide valuable information and commentary in defense of public education. This entry is by Alfie Kohn.

“We’re Number Umpteenth!”: The myth of lagging U.S. schools

Stephen Krashen and Diane Ravitch have been talking about this for years…as did the late Gerald Bracey. Our students from low poverty schools do very well when compared to students in other developed countries. When high poverty students are included our average achievement drops below the average of other nations because we have such a high level of child poverty — approaching 25% — in America.

In addition, most other “advanced” nations have social safety nets which provide essential services to their children in poverty…medical and dental care, for example. In the US those safety nets, as well as school budgets which pay for wraparound services, are shrinking.

Beliefs that are debatable or even patently false may be repeated so often that at some point they come to be accepted as fact. We seem to have crossed that threshold with the claim that U.S. schools are significantly worse than those in most other countries. Sometimes the person who parrots this line will even insert a number — “We’re only ____th in the world, you know!” — although, not surprisingly, the number changes with each retelling.

The assertion that our students compare unfavorably to those in other countries has long been heard from politicians and corporate executives whose goal is to justify various “get tough” reforms: high-stakes testing, a nationalized curriculum (see under: Common Core “State” Standards), more homework, a longer school day or year, and so on.

But by now the premise is so widely accepted that it’s casually repeated by just about everyone — including educators, I’m sorry to say — and in the service of a wide range of prescriptions and agendas, including some that could be classified as progressive. Recently I’ve seen it used in a documentary arguing for more thoughtful math instruction, a petition to promote teaching the “whole child,” and an article in a popular on-line magazine that calls for the abolition of grades (following a reference to “America’s long steady decline in education”).

Unsurprisingly, this misconception has filtered out to the general public. According to a brand-new poll, a plurality of Americans — and a majority of college graduates! — believe (incorrectly) that American 15-year-olds are at the bottom when their scores on tests of science knowledge are compared to those of students in other developed countries.

A dedicated group of education experts has been challenging this canard for years, but their writings rarely appear in popular publications, and each of their efforts at debunking typically focuses on just one of the many problems with the claim. Here, then, is the big picture: a concise overview of the multiple responses you might offer the next time someone declares that American kids come up short. (First, though, I’d suggest politely inquiring as to the evidence for his or her statement. The wholly unsatisfactory reply you’re likely to receive may constitute a rebuttal in its own right.)

When something is repeated often enough it becomes “common knowledge” even if it’s not completely true. “Reformers” and others who have the destruction of America’s public education system as part of their agenda, repeat the myth that “American schools are failing” over and over again. They have done that so often that it’s accepted as truth. Unfortunately, it’s wrong.

Among the myths Kohn addresses is that of low international test scores.

4. Rich American kids do fine; poor American kids don’t. It’s ridiculous to offer a summary statistic for all children at a given grade level in light of the enormous variation in scores within this country. To do so is roughly analogous to proposing an average pollution statistic for the United States that tells us the cleanliness of “American air.” Test scores are largely a function of socioeconomic status. Our wealthier students perform very well when compared to other countries; our poorer students do not. And we have a lot more poor children than do other industrialized nations. One example, supplied by Linda Darling-Hammond: “In 2009 U.S. schools with fewer than 10 percent of students in poverty ranked first among all nations on PISA tests in reading, while those serving more than 75 percent of students in poverty scored alongside nations like Serbia, ranking about fiftieth.”[7]

“Reformers” and privatizers will continue to perpetuate myths about public education for their own purposes. The fact that the myths are untrue doesn’t matter to them. They have power, money, and through corporate media, the “ear” of the nation. With repetition, the myths become accepted as reality. We have to respond as often as necessary to debunk the myths. We have to disseminate the truth…we have to educate the public.

  • America’s public schools are not failing.
  • Test scores are not “lower than ever.”
  • Charter schools are not better than regular public schools.
  • Class size matters.
  • Poverty matters.

A Chronology

This misinformation is not new. Others have listed their “Myths of Public Education” over the years…many are the same ones Kohn highlights. Here are some going back a few years…

Nine Myths About Public Schools – Gerald Bracey, September 25, 2009

None of this will likely strike you as particularly new, but it might be good to have a bunch of myths lined up and debunked all in one place.

Five myths about America’s schools – May 20, 2011

The end of the school year and the layoffs of tens of thousands of teachers are bringing more attention to reformers’ calls to remake public schools. Today’s school reform movement conflates the motivations and agendas of politicians seeking reelection, religious figures looking to spread the faith and bureaucrats trying to save a dime. Despite an often earnest desire to help our nation’s children, reformers have spread some fundamental misunderstandings about public education.

10 Myths About Public Education – August 1, 2011

Myth #1: Teachers Have Guaranteed Job Security…
Myth #2: Education is a Business…
Myth #3: Teachers Will Work Harder With Incentives…
Myth #4: Higher Education Is Competitive While K-12 Is Not…
Myth #5: Teachers Are Stupid…
Myth #6: Urban Schools Are Broken…
Myth #7: Per-Pupil Spending Is Up…
Myth #8: Scores Are Lower…
Myth #9: Teachers Are Ungrateful…
Myth #10: We’re All Losers

Debunking Seven Myths About Public Education – September 18, 2011

Since the launch of Sputnik and especially since publication of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983, public education in America has taken a beating from policymakers and the media, and conservative pundits have constantly predicted doom for the nation’s economy. Yet, public education produced the engineers who enabled the U.S. to win the space race, and our economy has been strong and resilient. Public education’s major role in these achievements should be celebrated, not ignored.

At the same time, it is true that schools educating low-income children face debilitating challenges caused by the highest poverty rates in the developed world and denial of essential resources, and this is indeed inimical to the civic and economic health of our country. We must extend the high achievement in suburban schools to our urban and rural schools, by implementing measures necessary to overcome the effects of poverty.

Myths and Realities in Public Education – National School Boards Association, 2012

Unfortunately, critics of public education do not always take this balanced approach. Too often they take indicators out of context to show how public schools are failing and ignore signs where public education is succeeding. With so many reports masquerading as evidence-based research, it’s difficult to discern fact from fiction. To help you make sense of it all, we’ve highlighted areas where perception differs from reality.

Myths About Public Education in Indiana – Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education, July 23, 2012

MYTH: Public Schools are Failing our children…
MYTH: Charter Schools provide a better education…
MYTH: Poverty does not affect a child’s educational performance…
MYTH: Teachers’ unions use tenure to protect poorly performing teachers from dismissal.

5 Biggest Lies About America’s Public Schools — Debunked – October 1, 2012

Just weeks into the 2012-2013 school year education issues are already playing a starring role in the national conversation about America’s future. Because it’s an election year, the presidential candidates have been busy pretending there are many substantial distinctions between them on education policy (actually, the differences are arguably minimal). Meanwhile, the striking Chicago Teachers Union helped thrust teachers unions into the national spotlight, with union-buster Democrat Mayor Rahm Emanuel reminding us that, these days, Republicans and Democrats frequently converge on both education policy and labor-unfriendliness.

Since pundits and politicians often engage in education rhetoric that obscures what’s really going on, here are five corrections to some of the more egregious claims you may have recently heard.

Myths vs. Facts about America’s Public Education – April 10, 2013

Myth #10 – Anyone Can Teach, Credentials Don’t Matter…
Myth #9 – Funding and Class Sizes Don’t Matter…
Myth #8 – Schools Should Be Run Like a Business…
Myth #7 – Standardized Testing Results Tell Us Which Teachers Are Good…
Myth #6 – The Problem with Traditional Public Education is Teacher’s Unions…
Myth #5 – Traditional Public Schools are Failing our Children and Charter Schools Perform Better…
Myth #4 – Poverty Does Not Affect a Child’s Educational Performance…
Myth #3 – American K-12 Education Ranks Far Behind the Rest of the World…
Myth #2 – Early Childhood Education Provides No Appreciable Benefit…
Myth #1 – School Choice is the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time…

Stop the Testing Insanity!


Retired after 35 years in public education.

One thought on “Myths Taken as Reality

  1. Hi Stewart, thanks for including my post on your blog. Love this: “There’s no such thing as a failing public school…only a failing social and governmental environment surrounding it.” Keep up the great work!

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