Education should turn minds into mythbusters. It should help develop the critical thinking tools required to ask questions and test assumptions in order to cut through the lazy ideas and tendentious nonsense that too often passes as conventional wisdom.
One sign that our schools are failing to deliver on that core mission is the array of myths that dominate discussion of education in North Carolina.
Myth 1: Our schools are greenhouses of excellence. Wake County educator Brandon Lee reiterated this false notion in a recent op-ed when he claimed “our teachers are dedicated, our administrators are supportive, our community members are involved, and our students are the absolute best.” I’m sure many are. But like every other human endeavor, schools have their share of incompetent teachers, lazy administrators, uninvolved parents and unmotivated children. Cheerleading is important, but pretending that everyone is giving their very best creates a false narrative that all the problems are due to external factors, especially a lack of resources.
Myth 2: More spending produces better results. The numbers show that education spending per pupil in the United States has more than doubled since the early 1970s without any real increase in performance. Many of the most troubled school districts in the country, including those in New York City and Washington, D.C., spend more than twice as much as North Carolina. Money matters, but not as much as the family structure and personal experiences that shape children. We should stop blaming schools because too many kids aren’t achieving, but we also shouldn’t pretend more school funding will fix these problems.
Myth 3: Universal Pre-K is the missing link for excellence. Gov. Roy Cooper was just the latest figure to falsely peddle pre-school programs as a magic elixir. “The science,” he claimed, “is just overwhelming as to how much of a difference early childhood education makes in whether a child is going to succeed in school or in life.” A few years ago, proponents of pre-K trumpeted the vast educational benefits of these programs. The “science” – in the form of multiple peer-reviewed studies – shows that any academic benefit has faded away by second or third grade. Undaunted, proponents now argue that it produces better citizens who are more likely to complete their education and less likely to wind up in jail. Perhaps. But those bold claims are based on a handful of longitudinal studies – especially involving one group who attended pre-school in Chicago in the 1980s – that are far from definitive.
Myth 4: More diverse teachers will improve performance. In another major push, Gov. Cooper says the state must recruit more minority teachers because “research” shows it helps students of color improve their academic performance while reducing disciplinary issues. Putting aside the fact that many Asian-American students excel in classrooms led by white teachers, this claim is also based on a thin body of scholarship. One commonly cited study reports that “a disadvantaged black male’s exposure to at least one black teacher in elementary school reduces his probability of dropping out of high school by nearly 40 percent.” Honestly, I’m skeptical. But if Cooper truly believes the research, he should move swiftly to insure that every elementary school with disadvantaged students has a least one – or more – African-American teachers. This might require reassignments but given the alleged pay-off, who would refuse?
The truth is that we have spent decades studying education and implementing silver bullet strategies – new math, Common Core, Read to Achieve, etc. – with disappointing results. I don’t know the answer, though I suspect it involves the home more than the schools. But I do know that spouting myths is not an effective strategy for changing reality.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.