Rejecting False Claims about Education: A Primer for Journalists

One thing (but not the only thing) I have learned about doing public work as an academic is that I am often positioned as the responder, and thus criticizing someone else’s claim. The result is that many are quick to refute my criticism as just that—so much griping—and those voices often demand that I offer some alternative, a valid response. Although I must note that in the mainstream media, I am often given only about 750 words and one shot at the topic.

Here, in the confines of my blog, however, I can take more time and come back to topics as often as I see fit. My recent examination of the dysfunctional relationship between journalists covering education and the field of education (see herehere, here, and here) cannot be complete, then, without offering both the central false claims that dominate how the media characterizes public schools and credible education reform along with evidence-based alternatives to those claims.

Below, let me outline some prominent myths and the more complicated realities about the historical and current state of public education in the U.S. and the need for a different vision of education reform in the context of long-ignored social reform.

Myth: Education is the great equalizer.

Lets start with semantics—how we make claims. As most people use “education is the great equalizer,” the claim suggests we have already accomplished this; however, in reality, educational attainment does not equalize in the context of race, social class, and gender.

A tremendous amount of evidence shows that greater educational attainment will give a person advantages within race, class, or gender, but not among race, class, and gender. As just a couple of graphic examples (see research linked above):


access to good jobs race gender

Instead of “education is the great equalizer,” we must begin to argue “education should be the great equalizer, but we are not there yet.”

The US must, then, commit to social reform that addresses the negative influence of racism, classism, and sexism on children and adults. Concurrently, education reform must focus on equity and not accountability: access to challenging courses, access to certified and experience teachers, equitable disciplinary practices.

Myth: Teacher quality is the most important factor in student achievement.

This is also where our hopes clash with realities. Teacher quality is a small percentage, about 10-15%, of measurable student achievement, dwarfed by out-of-school, factors:

But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998;Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

Research from the UK, in fact, reveals teacher quality as only one part of school quality is even a smaller fraction of what matters in student achievement:

Just 14 per cent of variation in individuals’ performance is accounted for by school quality. Most variation is explained by other factors, underlining the need to look at the range of children’s experiences, inside and outside school, when seeking to raise achievement.

Instead of “Teacher quality is the most important factor in student achievement,” we must make a complicated case: “Teacher quality is extremely important, but nearly impossible to identify by measurable student outcomes.” And then, “social and school reform must address many influences on student achievement, most of which are outside the control of schools alone.”

As I noted above, vulnerable student populations are suffering inequitable access to certified and experienced teachers; here is an area for reform.

Myth: Private and/or charter schools outperform public schools.

These false and simplistic claims often suffer from not carefully making fair comparisons. The key here is that when raw data comparisons are used, conclusions are typically unfounded. The reality is that no type of school (public, private, charter) has proven to be superior to any other type, and all types of schools have a wide range of quality that is strongly linked to the populations of students being served. Some evidence (although this counter-claim is what the body of evidence shows):

Instead of “Private and/or charter schools outperform public schools,” we must refocus on “How do we create equitable public schools that make private and charter schools unneeded?”

This myth is difficult to separate from the next, the miracle school.

Myth: School X is a miracle school.

Possibly one of the most enduring false narratives of media coverage of education is the newest miracle school (increasingly charter or more specifically KIPP charter schools). This false narrative is compelling because on the surface, these stories in the press seem like good news; however, they fail for two reasons: first, if a miracle school existed, by its nature, that school would be an outlier, and thus not a credible model for what all or most schools should do, and second, miracle schools simply do not exist, but are the product of careful public relations and the failure of journalists to verify those PR claims.

As I noted above, schools claiming miracles or media labeling a school a miracle are likely not identifying the details that would unravel the claims: charter schools that underserve the highest poverty students, special needs students, or ELL students; private schools that are selective, and public schools that may appear highly effective when focusing on some data, but exposed as typical when the full picture is examined.

Again, the key for journalists is to be skeptical of miracle claims, and do the due diligence in confirming the claims; some evidence of the false allure of miracle schools:

Instead of “school X is a miracle school,” we need to avoid seeking outliers as models for expectations for all schools, but we must also learn to offer nuanced and complex stories about the realities of all schools, pictures that are often uncomfortable.

In short, journalists should stop writing miracle school stories.

Myth: School quality is the key to our country’s economy.

This has been refuted for decades, notably by Gerald Bracey; for example, International Comparisons: More Fizzle than Fizz:

[T]est scores, at least average test scores, don’t seem to be related to anything important to a national economy. Japan’s kids have always done well, but the economy sank into the Pacific in 1990 and has never recovered. The two Swiss-based organizations that rank nations on global competitiveness, the Institute for Management Development and the World Economic Forum, both rank the U. S. #1 and have for a number of years.

At its core, I think, this false claim about causality (better schools somehow equal a better economy) is a bigger problem than the claim.

Education journalism often fails by jumping to causal claims (using rankings as if that proves some causal link, making common-sense claims because it seems that X causes Y) when the evidence doesn’t support those arguments. Again, consider that we seem to believe private schools cause better outcomes, but in fact, private schools are able to select the sorts of students who happen to have the lives that cause those outcomes, not the school type.

Just as we must admit about teacher quality, instead of “school quality is the key to our country’s economy,” we should be arguing that improving schools by focusing on equity is important for hundreds of reasons that may or may not be directly measurable or linked to a wide variety of outcomes, such as economic stability or growth.

False narratives have endured because they are simple (simplistic), but the alternatives we need to embrace will be challenging because of their complexity.

Myth: New standards and new tests (i.e, Common Core) ask more of our students, are the key to education reform.

The blunt truth is that standards and high-stakes testing haven’t work for over three decades, and in fact, the quality or even presence of standards does not correlate with better student outcomes or greater equity in our schools.

A review of the standards-based accountability era has shown:

There is, for example, no evidence that states within the U.S. score higher or lower on the NAEP based on the rigor of their state standards. Similarly, international test data show no pronounced test score advantage on the basis of the presence or absence of national standards. Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the “dumbing down” and narrowing of the curriculum….

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself.

Further, the evidence is plentiful that standards, testing, and accountability have been ineffective:

  • French, Guisbond, and Jehlen (2013), Twenty Years after Education Reform: High-stakes accountability in Massachusetts has not worked.
  • Loveless (2012), How Well Are American Students Learning?: “Despite all the money and effort devoted to developing the Common Core State Standards—not to mention the simmering controversy over their adoption in several states—the study foresees little to no impact on student learning” (p. 3).
  • Whitehurst (2009), Don’t Forget Curriculum: “The lack of evidence that better content standards enhance student achievement is remarkable given the level of investment in this policy and high hopes attached to it. There is a rational argument to be made for good content standards being a precondition for other desirable reforms, but it is currently just that – an argument.”
  • Kohn (2010), Debunking the Case for National Standards: CC nothing new, and has never worked before.
  • Victor Bandeira de Mello, Charles Blankenship, Don McLaughlin (2009), Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scales: 2005-2007: Why does research from the USDOE not show high-quality standards result in higher NAEP scores?

Instead of “new standards and new tests (i.e, Common Core) ask more of our students, are the key to education reform,” we need to call for some different approach to reform, again one focusing on equity.

Another ugly truth behind the false narrative about standards is that the new standards/new tests churn has benefitted the education market, but not students or the public.

Myth: School choice works and parents deserve choices.

Both of these false claims speak, again, to what many in the US hope for, but not what exists. In other words, “choice” triggers for most people our faith in freedom, but in the free market and public education, “choice” is a complicated and misleading term.

First, school choice advocates have been shifting their claims and promises for several decades now—when each promise fails, a new one is offered. And second, particularly focusing on parental choice, choice advocacy fails from idealizing the mechanism.

School choice suffers a similar pattern to the myth above about private, charter and public schools: school choice advocates tend to issue PR reports that have not been peer-reviewed, journalists cover those PR accounts uncritically but do not report when the claims are refuted in reviews, and school choice must be examined by making fair comparisons (funding, populations of students, etc.).

While school choice hasn’t produced higher student outcomes, or any of the many promises advocates offer, we do have some outcomes worth considering. School choice contributes to segregation.

The wealth of research on school choice is staggering, but that is even more troubling since it overwhelmingly does not support the typical positive spin found in the media. Some evidence includes:

Instead of “school choice works and parents deserve choices,” we need to set aside our idealism about choice, and recommit to the power and importance of strong public institutions, not as a dangerous alternative to the free market but as necessary for the free market to work for everyone.

In short, market dynamics such as choice are not universally powerful or effective, especially in endeavors serving the public good such as universal public education. As well, we must admit that rejecting school choice as a mechanism for school reform is not somehow an attack on the autonomy of families or parents.

Beyond rejecting the myths noted above—and many others (such as the daft “money doesn’t matter”)—journalists need to step back from business as usual in terms of how pubic schools are examined and whose voices matter in that discussion.

Practices such as ranking need to stop, and ways to increase educators’ voices in that discussion must be explored.

As I have detailed above, the media is too often trapped in what we wish were true instead of the harsh realities we continue to face. For that reason, I remain committed to calling for a critical free press.

Recommended Reading for Education Journalists

Reading Educational Research: How to Avoid Getting Statistically SnookeredGerald W Bracey

Education and the Cult of Efficiency, Raymond Callahan


12 thoughts on “Rejecting False Claims about Education: A Primer for Journalists”

  1. Reporters are often not the problem. Editors are the problem. Editors assign most if not all of the stories and editors are also in charge of the red ink that slashes, cuts and revises stories before they go to print. Editors tend to also know what top down management wants and will slant stories to make the boss who pays their income happy.

    For instance, a reporter could write a 40 inch story and have quotes in their that balance the issue but when the editor is done, most if not all quotes that supported public education could be cut and the story slashed to 20 inches.

    Without access to the original piece that the reporter wrote, we have no way to know if the reporter is responsible for what appears in print.

    Editors also cut stories and decide what stories to cut. Everything reporters write doesn’t always see print.

  2. It would be instructive to see the actual distributions of income within each race along with the medians at each education level because the authors of “The Bell Curve,” would have a different explanation for this data than you or me.

  3. Paul, thank you for your on-going blogging on this topic. You view that ‘teacher quality is the most important factor in student achievement’ is a myth, would be hotly refuted in New Zealand. John Hattie, as you may know, has gained a great following for arguing that teacher quality *is* the most important factor in student achievement. His ‘Visible Learning’ meta-analysis was eagerly taken up by the New Zealand Ministry of Education. I’d be interested to hear your views on Hattie’s position.

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