Myths about US Education that Hurt our Schools

Diane Ravitch was in Wisconsin last week, before all the trouble started with throngs of workers marching and the Democrats going into hiding. Ravitch spoke about why the current direction of our federal school reform movement is endangering education. From In These Times:

President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have formed an alliance with billionaire “school reformers” whose agenda is to downgrade U.S. public education and blame its shortcomings on “bad teachers,” warns educational historian Diane Ravitch.

Ravitch spoke Thursday night before a crowd of more than 1,000 education professors, students, public school teachers, and community activists at the University of Wisconsin.

“These corporate reformers are pursuing a strategy based on ideology, not on evidence,” she charged. “It is demoralizing teachers and setting up public schools to be de-legitimized, as they are called upon to meet impossible goals. This is not an improvement strategy, it is a privatization strategy.”

Ravitch was a former supporter of charter schools and school choice, back when she was the Secretary of Education for the elder President George Bush. Now she is coming out powerfully to question whether these reforms have served education well, and her conclusion is that they haven’t. I think it’s important to listen to her because she has a lot of wisdom and experience, and could help us to not go any further down the road toward fruitless reforms.

On a related note, it’s important to look with skepticism on the claim that our education system has gotten worse over the past 50 years. There is not a lot of clear evidence to support this claim. In fact, there is evidence to show that though we have always been mediocre compared to other countries, we have improved in the past few decades. From Jay Mathews at the Washington Post:

“U.S. students, who once led the world, currently rank 21st in the world in science and 25th in math,” Newsweek reported in September. I hear that a lot. Politicians and business leaders often bemoan the decline of American education compared to the rest of the world. We are doomed, they say, unless we [fill in here the latest plan to save the country.]

So I was surprised to find, in the latest report by the wonderfully contrarian Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, that the notion of America on the downward track is a myth. The data show that we have been mediocre all along, as far back as 1964. If anything, we have lately been showing some signs of improvement.

Loveless, senior fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, says in his annual report on American Education:

“The United States never led the world. It was never number one and has never been close to number one on international math tests. Or on science tests, for that matter. It is more accurate to say that the United States has always trailed the world on math tests.”

Among the comments on the latest results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in December, which showed some U.S. gains, was this from Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia: “The good news is that the free-fall seems to have stopped–and it was a free-fall for a while.”

Loveless says no. “There was no sharp decline–in either the short or long run,” he says. “The U.S. performance on PISA has been flat to slightly up since the test’s inception, and it has improved on TIMSS [the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, another major series of tests] since 1995.”

This is not exactly good news, but context is important. If we have managed to be the world’s most powerful country, politically, economically and militarily, for the last 47 years despite our less than impressive math and science scores, maybe that flaw is not as important as film documentaries and political party platforms claim. And if, after so many decades of being shown up by much of the rest of the developed world, we are improving, it might be time to be more supportive of what we already doing to fix our schools.


9 thoughts on “Myths about US Education that Hurt our Schools

  1. I am always delighted to see Diane Ravitch quoted. The current meme about how students would all excel if only teachers could be punished is so attractive because it puts no responsibility on students who don’t want to study and parents who don’t want to make them. It costs no one any money. It’s too easy.

  2. I agree with Observer on this (by the way, I know his views are way too complex to be characterized as a “tea party type”) and would add from my 39 years of teaching math at Rhode Island College that I certainly felt there was decline in the math preparation of our students – this can be noted in old exam questions that would be way too hard today. Indeed one of my colleagues presented a paper on this decline. Lots of reasons for this, maybe its just the glow from my golden youth…

    1. Hi Barry, and Hi, Everyone !

      I am particularly curious about:
      “the glow from my golden youth,”
      and while I am a little younger than some, I have reached an august state of farsightedness (not myopia) due to my advancing years. . .
      I find myself sorry for my son and his peers because they rarely have class field trips (< one per year!) and as nerdy as I was, I have fond memories of events like that….
      ? But is that the glow ? or did I find the trips dull and wasteful ?

      1. I took field trips in my abnormal psych course in college-most of the students were law enforcement and firefighters-we visited Manhattan State Hospital and Willowbrook State School for the Mentally Retarded-no one found it a waste of time and in fact we learned quite a bit.Remember,we were mostly married and some of us were middle aged.
        The professor for the course,a Dr.William Tortorella was one ofthe best educaators I’ve ever encountered-you could hear a pin drop in his class-we sometimes had a double session and no one really wanted a break halfway through so we could listen to what he had to say.
        Hey,field trips in grade school were pretty cool.I remember going to a railway/truck transfer terminal for wholesale produce-“this is where we get our veggies kids”-good stuff.
        Forget it nowadays-the liability shysters ruin everything.

    2. Barry-thanks for noticing that I don’t parrot anyone else’s “party line”as some here have surmised-I have never joined the Tea Party,although they have some good points to make.
      I don’t view government as the enemy,but I think bad government or overreaching government is destructive beyond imagination.
      My idea of good government was Eisenhower and Robert Wagner in NYC.You can draw your conclusions from that.

  3. Barry,

    You sort of put your finger on the crux of the problem. I don’t mean to pick on you, but you’ve summed up the situation perfectly.

    You ‘felt’ there was a problem. A lot of people have ‘felt’ the same thing. There has been no hard evidence to support this ‘feeling,’ but, somehow, that doesn’t matter. The ‘feeling’ must be a reflection of reality.



    Most people feel that the sun revolves around the earth. Most people feel that having a shot of brandy on a cold day will help them keep warm. Most people feel that we got more snow when they were kids.

    Convincing as these feelings are, they’re wrong.

    And so we’re wrong about the horrific decline in America’s schools. There is no evidence to support this belief. Instead, it’s been mostly created by the GOP propaganda machine, useful as a tool to crush public-sector unions. (Seen what’s happening in Wisconsin?)

    But the evidence–real, hard, concrete, actual evidence proves otherwise. Schools have not declined.

    What we have done is included more kids who, 50 years ago, would never have considered attending college. When you factor in their performance, yes, it appears that standards have declined; however, if you control for the participation of these students, the decline disappears.

    So the ‘obvious’ perception is wrong.

    We need to overcome these incorrect feelings, and start believing in hard fact.

    1. Where did you attend college,”klaus”?
      And when?
      I started college in 1963(skipped a year in junior high)just before my 17th birthday.
      It was at Hunter College,Bronx campus,a part of the CUNY system.
      The classes were not easy in any respect.I thought I knew English until I had to read in Middle English.
      After about two years I went into the military and came back to school in Fall of 1971,this time at John Jay College of Criminal Justice,also a part of CUNY.
      Well,by this time things had changed dramatically.CUNY had expanded beyond all reason in the interest of “inclusiveness”.It couldn’t support such a mission.
      While the curriculum in criminal justice was of high quality,and a large number of students were law enforcement and firefighters(I was one of the former)there were younger students and many of them literally read at the level required for the courses.
      They had remedial reading classes.It was hard to believe this was a college,and John Jay wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the others which had sprouted like mushrooms.You can’t just manufacture colleges like they were Liberty ships during WW2.
      The system had previously been tuition free for qualified city residents-“qualified”being the key word.
      Admission waas based on a combination of SAT scores and grades in HS.I didn’t make the grade for brooklyn College,so I took a 2 hour ride each way on the IRT to attend Hunter.
      When the system expanded to tke in everyone,standards were jettisoned;nonsensical programs like SEEK and College Discovery were introduced,providing such things as stipends for certain students,and retention was no longer an issue.There was no minimal grade level required to stay in the program.
      Result?Tuition was introduced and fees eploded.
      I graduated in 1973 and that was shortly before the financial disaster hit the CUNY system.
      Barry is right.We did learn more at an earlier stage then as compaared to now in the normal run of the mill schools that we attended.
      You lke to act as though the rest of us here are in your classroom for a teaching moment from the great mind,but tain’t so,buddy.
      BTW I noticed you withdrew from our debate on firearms laws after I explained how wrong your “feelings”about RI gun laws and the results really were.
      So you see it cuts both ways here.

  4. “klaus”-one more thing-in view of Barry’s decades as a math professor,his “feelings”on the subject have a great more validity than mine would.
    Not everything is quantifiable.Well,math more than some other things I’d guess.
    Math was my sore point-I’d sooner subdue an armed drug dealer than study algebra.:))

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