September 07, 2005,
Much of what people believe about education policy is simply not true. An examination of the evidence reveals that many common claims about education are as mythological as anything found in Homer or Aesop.
For example, many people believe that schools are desperately under-funded. In fact, public K-12 spending is approaching $10,000 per pupil double what it was three decades ago, adjusting for inflation. And total school spending is approaching $500 billion more than we spend on national defense ($454 billion) and more than the entire GDP of Russia ($433 billion).
Many people believe that teachers are horribly underpaid. In fact, the average elementary-school teacher makes $30.75 per hour, more than architects ($26.64), mechanical engineers ($29.46), and chemists ($30.68).
Many people believe that student achievement has been deteriorating for decades. In fact, today’s students perform about as well as their parents in terms of standardized test scores and high school graduation rates.
Why is education so prone to myths?
Part of the problem is that almost everyone imagines himself an expert about schools. Everyone has been through school, most people have had children in school, and many people have worked in schools or know someone who has. We tend to generalize from our direct experience even when our perspective may be narrow or distorted. In other policy areas less familiar to us we are more likely to rely on systematic evidence but in education we think we already have all of the evidence we need.
Another part of the problem is that education policy involves children and anything involving children evokes strong emotions. Those emotions ensure our attention to education issues but they can also cloud our reasoning. For example, because we really care about children, it is difficult to question claims that we need to spend more money to educate them. We wouldn’t want others, or even ourselves, to think that we were stingy about providing children the services they need.
But the most important reason myths are so prevalent in education policy is that there are interest groups promoting them. Unfortunately, teachers unions, school-board associations, and others with a financial stake in education policy take advantage of our vulnerability to myths about education. While most of us feel comfortable entrusting our children to their teachers at school each day, the interest groups that represent them and their schools do not warrant our trust. Teacher unions and the rest of the education establishment, like other interest groups, will support claims that advance their agendas regardless of whether those claims are based on facts or myths.
This interest-group behavior is not unique to education policy. For example, everyone recognizes the role that interest groups play in promoting sugar price supports or in the construction of roads. The sugar industry and construction lobbyists, like teachers unions, are relatively indifferent to whether their arguments are supported by evidence as long as they further their interests.
We usually recognize these interest groups for what they are and take their claims with a large grain of salt. But in education policy our emotional commitment to teachers and children blinds us to this self-interested behavior of education interest groups. We want to believe that education policy is not governed by the same crass political horse-trading that sets the government price for sugar or determines which congressional district will get a new bridge.
Our desire to believe that education policymaking is exceptional that it is fueled by the love of children rather than the maneuvering of organized interests allows education myths to proliferate. These myths cause real harm. We can’t improve public schools without a proper understanding of what ails them. We need to place less trust in our own experiences, our emotional impulses, and the organized-interests pretending to be advocates for children. We need to put more trust in the evidence.
Jay P. Greene is Head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where Marcus A. Winters is a senior research associate. They are authors of Education Myths, published by Rowman and Littlefield.