The money myth
This is the most widely held myth about education in America--and the one most directly at odds with the available evidence. Few people are aware that our education spending per pupil has been growing steadily for 50 years. At the end of World War II, public schools in the United States spent a total of $1,214 per student in inflation-adjusted 2002 dollars. By the middle of the 1950s that figure had roughly doubled to $2,345. By 1972 it had almost doubled again, reaching $4,479. And since then, it has doubled a third time, climbing to $8,745 in 2002.
This big-picture evidence is strongly confirmed by academic research. Though you'd never know it from the tenor of most education debates, the vast majority of studies have found no sustained positive relationship between spending and classroom results. Economist Eric Hanushek of Stanford University examined every solid study on spending and outcomes--a total of 163 research papers--and concluded that extra resources are more likely to be squandered than to have a productive effect.
The teacher pay myth
One reason for the prominence of the underpaid-teacher belief is that people often fail to account for the relatively low number of hours that teachers work. It seems obvious, but it is easily forgotten: teachers work only about nine months per year. During the summer they can either work at other jobs or use the time off however else they wish. Either way, it's as much a form of compensation as a paycheck--as anyone who has ever had to count vacation days knows. If a teacher makes $45,000 for nine months of work while a nurse makes $45,000 for 12 months of work, clearly the teacher is much better paid. Nurses would certainly consider it to be a generous raise if they were offered three months' vacation each year at the same annual salary.
The most recent data available indicate that teachers average 7.3 working hours per day, and that they work 180 days per year, adding up to 1,314 hours per year. Americans in normal 9-to-5 professions who take two weeks of vacation and another ten paid holidays per year put in 1,928 working hours. Doing the math, this means the average teacher gets paid a base salary equivalent to a fulltime salary of $65,440. That's the national average for all teachers--more experienced instructors, and those working in better-paying school districts, make tens of thousands of dollars more, sometimes approaching the equivalent of six-figure salaries.
Data from the U.S. Department of Labor show that in 2002, elementary school teachers averaged $30.75 per hour and high school teachers made $31.01. That is about the same as other professionals like architects, economists, biologists, civil engineers, chemists, physicists and astronomers, and computer systems analysts and scientists. Even demanding, education-intensive professions like electrical and electronic engineering, dentistry, and nuclear engineering didn't make much more than teachers per hour worked. And the earnings of teachers are much higher than those of registered nurses, police officers, editors and reporters, firefighters, and social workers.
The myth of insurmountable problems
This argument that schools are helpless in the face of social problems is not supported by hard evidence. It is a myth. The truth is that certain schools do a strikingly better job than others at overcoming challenges in the culture.
Inherent in the claim that schools are helpless to educate disadvantaged students is the idea that any attempt to improve educational outcomes through reforms to the system would prove futile. However, the evidence suggests that reforms that focus on the incentives of public schools lead to educational gains.
In a study I performed of a voucher program in Florida, I found that when chronically failing public schools faced competition from vouchers, they made very impressive gains compared to the performance of all other schools. Similarly low-performing schools whose students were not eligible for the vouchers did not make similar gains. Many other researchers have found that school choice programs increase the performance of public schools. In fact, despite the frequent claims of teachers unions, I am not aware of a single study that has found that a school choice program harmed the academic performance of a public school system.
The class size myth
Unlike other myths, this one isn't totally baseless. Research suggests there may be some advantages to smaller classes--though if so, the benefits are modest and come at a very high price tag. And whether this research is actually correct is a matter of debate. So the strong claims for class size reduction made by political activists are not at all justified.
There is reason to be suspicious because of an anomaly in the research findings: If smaller classes really do improve student performance, we would generally expect to see these benefits accrue over time. But instead, the improvement in STAR test scores was a one-time event. This is unusual and unexpected. Considering that the project's supposed benefits were moderate to begin with, this raises serious doubts about whether the STAR results should lead to policy prescriptions--particularly since evidence on large-scale class size reduction is much less encouraging.
In California, the state appropriated $1 billion in 1996 to reduce elementary school class sizes. When California's test scores rose, advocates of smaller classes held up their program as a model. The reality, however, wasn't so clear. A RAND Corporation study concluded that California students who attended larger elementary school classes improved at about the same rate as students in smaller classes. Though California's overall educational performance went up, it did not seem to be due to smaller classes. (The state had also undertaken a number of other major education reforms at the same time it was reducing class sizes.)
And the financial costs of reducing class sizes on that scale would be exceptionally high--$2,306 per pupil according to calculations by Caroline Hoxby of Harvard University. There is only a finite amount of money available, so every dollar spent on class size reduction is a dollar that will not be available for salary increases, books, equipment, or the implementation of other reform policies. This will be true no matter how much money a school system has. Given that other reform strategies are more promising and less costly, the modest benefits of class size reduction simply can't justify the very large sacrifices that would have to be made.
The certification myth
In a review conducted for the Abell Foundation, researchers found that teachers holding a master's in education did not produce higher student performance, and among new teachers, traditional certification made no difference in student performance. After examining every available study on the impact of teaching credentials on job performance--171 in total--Eric Hanushek found that only nine uncovered any significant positive relationship between credentials and student performance, five found a significant negative relationship between the two, and 157 showed no connection. Looking at Teach For America--a program that lets recent college graduates become teachers without obtaining traditional education credentials--three scholars at Mathematica Policy Research found that students taught by these non-credentialed instructors made significant gains in math in one year, and kept pace in reading. Current policy--which generally centers on teachers having education certificates--therefore appears to be seriously misguided.
Members of the education establishment fiercely resist giving up the old linkage of pay to paper accomplishments. When Michigan adopted new standards emphasizing a teacher's proven academic ability (as measured in skills tests) rather than their credentials or years of experience, the Detroit News profiled angry teachers. "It's a slap in my face that I have to go back and take a test," said one teacher with a master's degree and 30 years of experience.
Until we stop hiring and financially rewarding teachers according to qualifications that are irrelevant to their performance, we can never expect improved quality in classroom instruction.
The rich-school myth
Some point out that private schools don't always provide all the services that public schools do: transportation, special ed classes, lunch, counseling. But in an analysis comparing public-school and Catholic-school costs in New York, D.C., Dayton, and San Antonio, researchers found that excluding all of these services plus administration costs from the public-school ledger still left public schools with significantly more resources than Catholic schools. Besides, if public schools provide additional services, then those services should contribute to their students' educational outcomes. All spending is ultimately relevant to the question of a school's cost-effectiveness.
Just as lack of money cannot be blamed for poor outcomes in public schools, neither can differences in selectivity be held responsible. Surprising as it may be, most private schools are not very selective. A study of the nation's Catholic schools concluded that the typical institution accepted 88 percent of the students who applied. Other research in D.C., Dayton, and New York private schools found that only 1 percent of parents reported their children were denied admission because of a failed admissions test. Moreover, the academic and demographic backgrounds of students who use vouchers to attend private school across the country are very similar to those who don't.
In any case, numerous studies have compared what happens when students with identical backgrounds attend private versus public schools. And consistently, in study after study, the matched peers who remain in public schools do less well than children who shift to private schools. Higher student achievement is clearly attributable to some difference in the way private schools instruct--and not to more money, or simple exclusion of difficult students.
The myth of ineffective school vouchers
There have been eight random-assignment studies of school voucher programs, and in seven of them, the benefits for voucher recipients were statistically significant. In Milwaukee, for example, a study I conducted with two researchers from Harvard found that students awarded vouchers to attend private schools outperformed a matched control group of students in Milwaukee public schools. After four years, the voucher students had reading scores six percentile points above the control group, and standardized math results 11 percentile points higher. All of the students in this study (which is mirrored by other research) were low-income and Hispanic or African American.
In a study of a different program based in Charlotte, North Carolina, I found that recipients of privately funded vouchers outperformed peers who did not receive a voucher by six percentile points after one year. All of the students studied were from low-income households. In New York City, a privately funded school choice program has been the subject of many careful studies. One found that African-American voucher recipients outperformed the control group by 9 percentile points after three years in the program. Another analysis found a difference of 5 percentile points in math. A similar program in Washington, D.C. resulted in African-American students outperforming peers without vouchers by 9 percentile points after two years.
Every one of the voucher programs studied resulted in enthusiastic support from parents as well. And all this was achieved in private schools that expend a mere fraction of the amount spent per student in public schools. The most generously funded of the five voucher programs studied, the Milwaukee program, provides students with only 60 percent of the $10,112 spent per pupil in that city's public schools. The privately funded voucher programs spend less than half what public schools spend per pupil. Better performances, happier parents, for about half the cost: if similar results were produced for a method of fighting cancer, academics and reporters would be elated.
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