Thursday, April 18, 2013

Ten Myths about America’s Public Schools

Since I retired in 2008, I’ve been working on a book about what good teachers do. That means I’ve had the dubious pleasure of reading hundreds of articles on the state of our nation’s schools. Certain trends in coverage are impossible to miss. One glaring fact is that no one bothers to ask teachers what they think.

As a result, nonsense spouted by ignorant critics is repeated without challenge. Slowly but surely, nonsense becomes myth.

Top Ten Education Myths

1. Myth of the Failing Public Schools:  How do we know U. S. public schools are failing? We look at international competition. Experts insist U. S. kids can barely sharpen their pencils without sticking themselves in their eyes or getting writing devices stuck up their nostrils. In 2012 fifteen-year-olds from the United States finished 21st in reading, 25th in science and 33rd in math compared to kids around the world. We got our red, white and blue butts kicked by Liechtenstein!

And how about all the dropouts! At the rate we’re going the last U. S. high school graduate our nation ever produces will don cap and gown c. 2050. This catastrophic dropout rate is entirely the fault of idiot teachers.

2. Saga of the Idiot Teacher: The reason public schools are failing is because teachers are stupid. According to critics the men and women at the front the classrooms are a sad “collection of warm bodies.” These poor, dumb sods are “chosen from the bottom 20% of their college classes, and not of the best schools.”

(Sources—Brent Staples in the New York Times—Michael R. Bloomberg in a speech at M.I.T.—pretty much any Fox News commentator.)

The author:  a retired educator.
This is what a stupid teacher looks like.
He probably didn't even read all those books.

3. The Helsinki Myth: We need to follow the lead of Finland or Japan because students from those nations score higher in international competitions. Finland—wow—Finland has awesome teachers. The same is true for Japan. And Liechtenstein! That little postage stamp of a country has kick-ass educators.

4. Ghost of the Middle Class Job: The failure of public schools explains our nation’s declining position in a competitive global economy. All the good jobs are disappearing—to Liechtenstein!—because our schools produce graduates who can’t understand math or science or read ordinary street signs.

Typical American job candidate on the way to an interview: “Does that sign say ‘Stop’ or ‘One Way?’ Never mind. It’s a mailbox.”

5. Fable of the Ivy-Covered Wall: Thank god for all the brilliant school reformers, all armed with their own plans to save the children! These people are really smart, especially compared to the rejects manning our classrooms. U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan graduated from Harvard. So he must be correct in every syllable he utters. Michelle Rhee graduated from Cornell. She would run Students First and give speeches about how to fix education for free if only fans would stop paying her five-figure speaker’s fees!

Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, also graduated from a prestigious Ivy-League institution.

6. Test it and They Will Come: According to all the greatest school reformers if we do enough testing and “measuring” our schools can be great again. We will test first graders in long division and third graders in physics and measure what every child does in gym. If some chubby girl or boy can’t run a 7:00 mile by the end of eighth grade we will fire the gym teacher!

7. The Voucher that Wouldn’t Die: If standardized testing doesn’t work, even though brilliant reformers insist it will, we will save every child by opening up more charter schools and passing out more vouchers so parents can send sons and daughters to good private schools. Public schools are the problem.

In fact the real cure for what’s wrong with the public schools is probably exorcism.

8. The Teacher Who Walked on Water: If every child had an excellent teacher every year then every child would excel in school. No: every child would live happily ever after! All the girls would marry princes. Brilliant reformers do not plan to rest until they put an excellent teacher into every classroom and even a few coat closets. Not themselves, of course. Oh no. Oh no. They are far too valuable—and well paid—serving as leaders.

These heroes will never stop until Teach for America, founded by Kopp on the principle that we need to replace idiot teachers with smart ones, puts 3,000,000 Harvard and Stanford and Yale graduates into classrooms across the nation. Out go the dumbbells we have. In go the smart people. Okay, sure. Since 1990, the organization has trained only 28,000 teachers; and no one can tell us how many have remained in the classrooms. (They commit to two years.) But not to worry, because the smart people will save us. We are going to demand excellence in the teaching profession, just like we do in Congress. While we are at it every child is going to get a puppy or a kitten.

Maybe a bunny.

9. Myth of the Malevolent Thug: Teachers’ unions are the only reason school reforms fail. The plans can’t possibly be screwed up! Because the planners are all so brilliant! If standardized testing doesn’t work the failure has to be tied to unions. Every union member is a sloth with the scruples of a purse-snatcher. Teaching is a cushy job, especially in inner-city schools, and particularly for those men and women who make it past the five-year mark by which time half of all educators quit and find different employment.

10. Parable of the Adoring Mother: All parents will do right by their children if we pass the right laws. If we hand out vouchers, for example, every mom and dad will sit down and start studying their “school choice” options. Every girl and boy will suddenly have a parent (maybe two!!!) backing them up, working tirelessly to get them into the best schools. Before you can utter the words “Horace Mann” and click your ruby red slippers three times, poor kids will find elite private schools swinging doors wide to admit them. Religious schools will start taking kids with severe behavior disorders because that’s what Jesus would do.

Parental drug and alcohol use, physical and mental abuse of children, homelessness and gang violence, will vanish from the land.


There you have it—the mythical path to educational perfection. Get rid of idiot teachers and hire smart ones. Give all good parents—that’s the only kind there are—plenty of choices and that’s all you need. All the jobs in America will be saved—except maybe the job of “education reformer,” since education will be perfected.

At some glorious future date, when students are tested internationally, America’s kids will finish 1st in reading, 1st in science, and 1st in math.

Then we will be able to say, as proud American’s, “Stick it, Liechtenstein.”


  1. Thank you from the battered and abused "idiots" who have selected a profession where nothing is ever good enough. After teaching for forty years, I retired and left a profession I no longer recognized as education. My heart aches for those still in the classrooms doing the best job they can on a daily basis. Any failure, as you state, is ultimately that of the teacher and is in no way related to the ability or lack of motivation of the student. Combine that with the fact that students can refuse to do assigned work, talk back to teachers and behave inappropriately (with few, if any, consequences) and you have what has become the norm for many public schools. Is it what the teachers want or need? Absolutely not, but it is what many politicians and parents have created for us. Until those who dictate what we teach and how we teach decide that the teachers are not widget production managers who have no flawed materials on their assembly line, I am afraid that our students will discover that their test scores will not open doors for them once they graduate.Meanwhile, the "idiots" who were given mandates to implement in the classroom will be beating themselves up wondering why they can't achieve the impossible.

    1. I absolutely agree; I fear that the young teachers are going to be destroyed by poorly-planned reforms that fix no problems and ruin much that is best about teaching.

      Spread the word.

    2. I agree with all of this. I am currently a public school teacher who spends EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK planning "Riqorous and Relevant" activities only to be told at PLC meetings that I am not doing enough! These are children who are still learning to wipe their noses, and I am testing them every week, often to tears-theirs and mine. Amazingly, my children ARE learning, but it is because I have been teaching long enough to play the game and still actually teach. That is exhausting and VERY time consuming!!! I truly feel for the new teachers who buy into everything that is handed to them. I hope and pray for REAL EDUCATION REFORM-GIVE THE CLASSROOMS BACK TO THE TEACHERS!!!!!!!
      PS-I had to dictate this-I'm too dumb to type!!!!!

    3. I love your humor at the end. I had to have my wife read this to me, because I'm too dumb to read on my own.

    4. Love your sense of humor John Viall. I was too stupid to read it myself too.

    5. I'm glad you were able to find someone really smart, who went to a good college, to help you out. Michelle Rhee helped me type this tale.

  2. Problem is, once you hire a bright teacher into the system, he or she will be considered "an idiot teacher" forever more. The oligarchs need us to be considered idiots so they can make money off charters.

    1. You are such a cynic! I love it. And, yes, the corporations are just licking their lips, reading to sink their teeth into the public schools. The eight corporate heads of K-12, Inc, for example, were paid $21.4 million in 2013.

  3. I like your words. That's a lot of words. ;)

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  5. Criminals have taken over education.

    1. I'm not sure I'd go that far. Criminals are usually wiley. I think the people telling real teachers what to do are arrogant idiots.