Debunking the Debunkers
Beware of ideologically driven writers who attempt to “get to the truth.”
As one who is constantly trying to set the record straight on education issues, I am drawn to pieces like “5 Biggest Lies About America’s Public Schools – Debunked.” This article, courtesy of the popular leftist ezine AlterNet, reveals its POV in the first paragraph when writer Kristin Rawls, refers to uber-liberal Rahm Emanuel as a “union-buster.” Let’s examine each “lie,” as she refers to them:
Lie #1: Unions are undermining the quality of education in America. She writes that “union states correlate to higher test scores” but does not compare apples to apples. When one digs into the numbers and breaks them down by ethnicity, family structure, etc., the correlation falls apart. Then she gets positively loopy. She claims that unions are still important to student success because they “fight for equality of opportunity in education by, for example, opposing attempts to resegregate American schools.”
“…fight for equality of opportunity?!” The teachers unions actually do the reverse by aggressively opposing any measures that would enable inner city kids to flee their zip code-mandated hellholes. Giving families any kind of choice – a charter school, opportunity scholarship, etc. is anathema to them. Yes, the teachers unions do their best to literally “keep them in their place.”
Lie #2: Your student’s teacher has an easy and over-compensated job. In all my reading on education, I don’t recall anyone ever writing that teaching was easy. It’s not. As for “over-compensated?” She tries to make her case using a New York Times story which points out that, “The average primary-school teacher in the United States earns about 67 percent of the salary of an average college-educated worker in the United States.” Neither she nor the Times bother to mention how much time the average teacher works – typically 7 hours a day, 180 days per year – compared to the average college-educated worker, most of whom work over 8 hours a day and 240-250 days a year. Nor does either mention the very generous health benefits and retirement pensions that most teachers get. For a much more honest look at teacher pay and perks, there’s “Assessing the Compensation of Public-School Teachers,” an American Enterprise Institute report, which concludes that
… public-school teacher salaries are comparable to those paid to similarly skilled private sector workers, but that more generous fringe benefits for public-school teachers, including greater job security, make total compensation 52 percent greater than fair market levels, equivalent to more than $120 billion overcharged to taxpayers each year. (Bold added.)
Lie #3: If your child doesn’t get picked in a charter school lottery, he or she is doomed. For this “lie,” Rawls trots out the anti-charter crowd’s favorite study – the CREDO study – which claims that “that charter school students generally perform no better than students attending traditional public schools.” But shortly after the study was released, Caroline Hoxby and others wrote about its many statistical flaws. More recently, researcher Jay Greene noted,
The only way to know with confidence whether charters cause better outcomes is to look at randomized control trials (RCTs) in which students are assigned by lottery to attending a charter school or a traditional public school. RCTs are like medical experiments where some subjects by chance get the treatment and others by chance do not. Since the two groups are on average identical, any difference observed in later outcomes can be attributed to the “treatment,” and not to some pre-existing and uncontrolled difference.
When you have four RCTs – studies meeting the gold standard of research design – and all four of them agree that charters are of enormous benefit to urban students, you would think everyone would agree that charters should be expanded and supported, at least in urban areas. If we found the equivalent of halving the black-white test score gap from RCTs from a new cancer drug, everyone would be jumping for joy – even if the benefits were found only for certain types of cancer.
Unfortunately, many people’s views on charter schools are heavily influenced by their political and financial interests rather than the most rigorous evidence. They don’t want to believe the findings of the four RCTs, so they simply ignore them or cite studies with inferior research designs in which we should have much less confidence.
Lie #4: Your child will automatically be better off if your school district adopts a “school choice” assignment plan. Automatically? Her bias becomes very apparent in this “lie.” She hates the thought of giving parents a choice. She quotes Paul Thomas, an education professor, “The evidence on choice shows …parents do a terrible job with that choice.” Perfect! Parents are too stupid to pick out a good school for their kids. Ah, let’s have the government make that decision for them!!
Actually, the truth is miles from Thomas’ and Rawls’ bogus claims. In A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers, Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation writes:
• Ten empirical studies have used random assignment, the gold standard of social science, to examine how vouchers affect participants. Nine studies find that vouchers improve student outcomes, six that all students benefit and three that some benefit and some are not affected. One study finds no visible impact. None of these studies finds a negative impact.
• Nineteen empirical studies have examined how vouchers affect outcomes in public schools. Of these studies, 18 find that vouchers improved public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical studies find that vouchers harm public schools.
• Every empirical study ever conducted in Milwaukee, Florida, Ohio, Texas, Maine and Vermont finds that voucher programs in those places improved public schools.
• Only one study, conducted in Washington D.C., found no visible impact from vouchers. This is not surprising, since the D.C. voucher program is the only one designed to shield public schools from the impact of competition. Thus, the D.C. study does not detract from the research consensus in favor of a positive effect from voucher competition.
• The benefits provided by existing voucher programs are sometimes large, but are usually more modest in size. This is not surprising since the programs themselves are modest — curtailed by strict limits on the students they can serve, the resources they provide, and the freedom to innovate. Only a universal voucher program could deliver the kind of dramatic improvement our public schools so desperately need.
Lie #5: Your student’s teacher sees your constructive involvement in your child’s education as an annoyance. Rawls has this one right. But it’s hardly worth mentioning. She tries to make her case by quoting one teacher who says “I have felt bashed by parents who mask either their children’s failings or their own failings by the rhetoric of school failure.” I taught for almost 30 years, and this type of attitude is quite rare. I and my colleagues were well aware that involved parents are a crucial component for successfully educating a child; we certainly never thought of them as “annoyances.” On the contrary, we did everything we could to encourage and increase their involvement.
While many of us have strong points of view, it is essential we let facts determine our worldview and not vice versa. But I think it’s clear that for Ms. Rawls, “facts” are determined by her politics.
About the author: Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.