Schools can't improve if policy is based on myths

The news is replete with misinformation about U.S. public schools. Here are a few of the myths:

Teachers are the most important ingredient in a child's education.

While teachers are crucial, they are not most important, by far. In every state and in virtually every school district, poor children, on average, perform significantly below middle-class kids, regardless of their teachers' skills.

Most poor children start school significantly behind, and most never catch up.

Reasons for this include inadequate health, dental, vision and hearing care; poor nutrition; a paucity of reading material in the home; parents' lower education level; too many homes without fathers; too little belief in the importance of education; families changing residences too frequently; and, in some cases, kids being punished by peers for working hard in school. Above all, poverty is the most important factor in the academic achievement gap.

We can evaluate teachers using the test scores of their students.

A child's test scores are the product of the home and all of that kid's previous teachers, not just the current teacher. And we know that kids from poverty, on average, score lower than those from the middle class. Suppose that two teachers have the same ability, but that one has middle-class children and that the other has students from poverty. It is almost certain that the first teacher will appear to be a better teacher if test scores are used for evaluation purposes. In addition, what was the contribution of the current teacher vis-a-vis all previous teachers and the influence of the home? The current teacher's influence might be quite minimal.

If the majority of children in a school fail, the school is failing.

When a majority of children in a school fail to score well on standardized tests, that school is classified as a failing school. But what if the children in that schools are uninterested in working hard, refuse to do their homework, misbehave and don't even try to perform well on these tests? Is the school necessarily failing? Why is the role of children's personal responsibility ignored?

Children in a failing school should be given a chance to escape and to attend a charter school.

Several large-scale studies have found the majority of charter schools do no better — and a significant percentage do worse —-- at educating children than public schools.

Most charter schools simply mimic what public schools do and very often do it more poorly. As many studies have shown, the problems that plague poor children haunt them in whatever school they attend.

Money doesn't matter.

In many cases, larger per-pupil expenditures are coupled with poorer academic performance. But the fallacy in such analysis is to discount the role of poverty; schooling that meets the needs of middle-class children cannot generally provide what poor kids require: a more extensive and intensive education because they start school so far behind.

Examples of this can be found in SEED, KIPP and Harlem schools. In each of these cases, children from poverty excel because the schools provide more intensive education, including longer school days, Saturday and summer school and homework every night; have zero-tolerance behavior standards; and require parents to be intimately involved in the child's education daily.

Providing these extras cost significantly more than public schools are allotted. More money is needed for educating poor children, but in a different environment from traditional public or charter schools.

All children can be proficient.

The No Child Left Behind law stipulates that all children must score "proficient" on standardized tests by 2014. But proficient actually means above average. So how realistic is it to expect all children to score above average in our current system?

American public schools are in crisis because we score in the middle of other countries in international comparisons.

What such comparisons miss is the fact that the United States has the highest level of child poverty of any industrialized country. And poverty is the academic killer. So it may be commendable that American children perform as well as they do.