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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Certain widely-shared myths and lies about education are destructive for all of us as educators, and destructive for our educational institutions. This is the subject of 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education, a new book by David Berliner and Gene Glass, two of the country’s most highly respected educational researchers. Although the book deserves to be read in its entirety, I want to focus on eight of the myths that I think are relevant to most teachers, administrators, and parents.

Myth #1: Teachers Are the Most Important Influence on a Child’s Education

Of course teachers are extremely important. Good teachers make a significant difference in achievement. But research indicates that less than 30 percent of a student's academic success is attributable to schools and teachers. The most significant variable is socioeconomic status, followed by the neighborhood, the psychological quality of the home environment, and the support of physical health provided. There are others, but the bottom line is that teachers have far less power to improve student achievement than do varied outside factors.

Myth #2: Homework Boosts Achievement

There is no evidence that this is true. In Finland, students have higher achievement with little or no homework and shorter school hours. The more important factor is what students experience during the school day. Project-based learning, as one example, places the emphasis on what is done during the day. If students choose to do more after hours, that's their choice. There also may sometimes be other good reasons to assign homework, but there should be no illusion that homework will help increase student achievement.

Myth #3: Class Size Does Not Matter

In an average high school, one teacher is responsible for 100-150 students on any given day. Students inevitably get lost in the shuffle. Research evidence strongly indicates that a decrease in the number of students has a qualitative pedagogical impact. When reductions occur in elementary classrooms, evidence has shown that the extra individualized attention and instruction appear to make it more likely for these students to graduate at higher rates from high school. Affluent families more frequently opt for districts or for private schools with smaller classes. It should come as no surprise that larger class sizes may disproportionally impact the children of the poor. Therefore, reducing class sizes will in fact result in more learning.

Myth #4: A Successful Program Works Everywhere

There is significant evidence against the idea that a program successful in one school or district should be imported elsewhere and expected to work well. Context is the key variable. Programs must be related to the makeup of the school district and/or the specific school. Approaches to education that are marketed for nationwide use may be excellent yet totally inappropriate for some districts. A program has to fit the specific needs of the schools and classrooms in the district, and a careful needs assessment coupled with a thorough examination should determine whether to adopt a program, not the success of the program elsewhere.

Myth #5: Zero-Tolerance Policies Are Making Schools Safer

This strikes me as one of the most colossally wrong-headed and destructive of the myths. Berliner and Glass describe numerous examples of this policy being implemented destructively, including one in which two students were suspended because one shared her inhaler with a friend who was having an asthma attack. Most importantly, there is no evidence that zero tolerance policies decrease school violence. To the contrary, the authors note that "suspensions and expulsions have far-reaching implications for a student's academics and can set them up for failure in their personal lives." Zero tolerance policies have resulted in school officials routing record numbers of students through the juvenile justice system, students who are then more likely to also end up in an adult prison later on. And, not surprisingly, all of the unintended effects associated with zero-tolerance policies in schools are multiplied for non-whites.

The authors also give examples of some schools that are learning from this research. As one example, after the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, teachers, parents, and administrators are focused on crisis preparedness and the politics of the gun debate, not on stricter policing of students.

Myth #6: Money Doesn’t Matter

It's a popular argument that, while we're spending more money than ever, test scores remain stagnant. This is a destructive myth widely shared by those who oppose better funding of our schools. Yet the research is clear. When school districts with sufficient resources are compared with those without, achievement outcomes are definitively higher in the wealthier districts. The authors note that it makes a significant difference in terms of student achievement when higher salaries are used to attract more experienced and better-educated teachers. Schools that serve the poor are more likely to retain well-paid teachers, despite the challenging circumstances they deal with each day. Since class size does matter, as we’ve seen, adequate funding makes it possible to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes. All of these assertions are strongly supported by research. Additionally, the authors cite Linda Darling-Hammond's report on new research from Finland, Singapore, and other countries that provides "striking evidence that spending more, and targeting that spending at students who come to school with the fewest resources, can have a dramatic positive impact on a nation's overall educational outcomes."

Of course, it is also possible that the school districts spending more money are located in communities in which socioeconomic factors and neighborhood quality play an important role.

Myth #7: College Admissions Are Based on Academic Achievement and Test Scores

Berliner and Glass' findings are disturbing. Many colleges and universities practice admissions by category. One example is athletics. The most significant variable at 30 of the most selective universities was discovered to be legacy (whether a family member previously attended the university). Wealthy parents who contribute development funds further increase the likelihood of admission. This doesn't mean that universities don’t pay attention to student achievement in their admissions process. It does mean that there is preferential treatment in admissions that relegates academic accomplishments to a lower priority.

Myth #8: Merit Pay for Teachers Improves Student Performance

The full argument is that merit pay is a good way to increase teacher performance, because teachers should be evaluated on the basis of student performance, and rewarding or punishing schools for student performance will improve our nation's schools. However, evidence suggests that competition between teachers is counterproductive and interferes with collaboration. Measuring teacher effectiveness is very difficult, and no simple measures effectively do this. There is no evidence that merit pay correlates with improved student achievement, but there is strong evidence that basing teacher salaries on student performance is counterproductive and ethically wrong -- it frequently punishes teachers and schools for socioeconomic factors over which they have no control.

Every educator, especially administrators and policymakers, should read 50 Myths & Lies. Based on hard research evidence, this book makes it very clear that we need to do a better job of differentiating myth from reality when we make our educational decisions. All too often, decisions are based on myths and what are essentially lies, not on research evidence.


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Old history teacher's picture

Myth #5: Zero-Tolerance Policies Are Making Schools Safer.
The goal of Zero-Tolerance Policies are to prevent the school from being sued. Professional CYA and Zero-Tolerance Policies do That very well.
Is it a good policy for the Student? ..No. Nor is it fair as problems are not judged on the merits of the case, but only in light of the policy.

Paul Gehres MA's picture

Good point Old History Teacher! The irony though is that students suffering from the extreme disciplinary measures of Zero-Tolerance have also sued the schools. Your second point is well taken.

NoLongerTeach's picture

'socioeconomic status matters', 'socioeconomic status matters' - every article and every other commentator mention this. Why don't we never call this by its real name: parents' level of education.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

Interesting point, NoLongerTeach. I agree that a parent's level of education does matter and is part of a student's socioeconomic status, but I don't think they are one and the same. I see students of parents who don't have college degrees but do have stable careers with a middle class income. Those kids have enough food to eat, they see the dentist regularly, go to the doctor when necessary and live in safe neighborhoods. While their parents' lack of education can impact the kids' education, other factors like steady income, healthy meals, safe neighborhoods, medical care and stable home lives contribute to their success in school.

Paul Gehres MA's picture

I agree with you Laura. I teach in a small rural elementary school. The students whose parents provide a safe, nurturing home tend do better in school. These student tend to have better grades and more positive peer relationships.

Rosemarie Schaut's picture
Rosemarie Schaut
English 11, 12, AP Literature ESL, College Readiness, and Blended School

. . . that poverty doesn't matter.

textlady's picture
Reading specialist in Chicago, Illinois, suburbs.

Please tell journalists to stop quoting this myth: One bad teacher can cause a student to fall three grades behind his or her peers. The corollary is also false: A good teacher can make a three-year difference in a child's learning and testing ability . The correct statistic is the following: After three years of bad teaching, a child will fell behind and show skill deficits. The alarmed public is alarmed due to shoddy journalism -- and a lack of fact checkers on online media sites.

Linda Sciaroni's picture

Children on free lunch ALL come from low achieving homes.

Many families are temporarily poor due to immigration, disability of a parent or sibling, closure of a major employer, running from an abusive spouse, refugee from a war, returning to civilian life from military service, children of graduate students....

When these "extremely likely to succeed" kids are picked off by "Schools of Choice" and they score well, it gives a false sense of achievement to those schools.

Linda Sciaroni's picture

I prefer, historical social capitol of the family.

Barrack has a grandma with no college degree who rose to be the VP of a major bank in Hawaii AS A WOMAN in n the 60's. That is a hell of a lot of social capital.
His dad left Africa and went to two major universities on full rides. That is a lot of brave ambition.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

As the writer of this column I feel it's my responsibility to write this message.

First, I'm delighted that the column stimulated so much thinking and feeling and also resulted in many very helpful and wise posts.

Second, I'm concerned about some of the posts and would appreciate your hearing me out.

1. Basic rules of civility online have sometimes been ignored. RESPECT in addressing the views of other posters, even if you disagree. So, sort of like my message to middle school kids "No Put-Downs!"

2. These comment opportunities always leave openings for comments that are really akin to standing on a soap box to vent.I think soap box venting can also be good AS LONG AS IT'S ON TOPICS. This is not a place to just share opinions and strong feelings that are not really on the topic.

3. Too many readers have responded to my brief summary comments and then cited contradictory research without ever reading the book. My column was a very brief summary of a detailed and comprehensive book. Citing contradictory research is fine, but it has very little meaning if there are 10 other research studies you have no knowledge of that contradict the study you cite. And it is even worse if you haven't read the book, comment on what's wrong with some info I've provided based on an n of 1 or 2 or 3, you and your colleagues.

4.Finally, please know that my column, by it's very brevity and thus, superficiality, is flawed. But it was designed to just get readers to think about whether some assumption about education are flawed, to re-examine their own assumptions, and hopefully read the book.

A final side comment. I agree that comparing us to other countries is terribly flawed.
But then I think most comparisons are odious. The key question should always be, "what can I learn from that country, or that teacher, or that writer, that will help my teaching and our way of schooling?" Finland is different from the U.S. But there is still a lot we can learn from Finland. I hope you all know that. If you believe otherwise, I ask you to read Finnish Lessons also one example of what we can learn from that country, not how we should adopt the Finnish system!

Thanks for listening. Now read the book I wrote about and continue to share your best positive ideas for improving teaching and our educational system.

And have a Happy and Healthy and Educationally Nourishing New Year!

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

Dismissing any of these without reading the book has limited validity. I'm sure my abbreviation of a complex book didn't fully do it justice. But the description of #7 as invalid is also simplistic.

As with any homework, math homework can of course be very valuable, very important. The authors are dealing with the whole territory and over reliance on homework. For me the question is more the quality of the homework and also the cumulative effect when all subject areas assign homework at the same time.

Steve's picture

Zer0 tolerance is cowardly and akin to mandatory sentencing. When a small girls is suspended for having a plastic knife in her lunchbox common sense is gone. Schools are FULL of the human element. The more you take out of it the less human it becomes.

NJive's picture

Actuaally there is lots of research showing that homework helps in math.

bx9438q's picture

#7 is not really a myth. College admissions really are based on academic achievement and test scores. They're just not the only thing used to determine college admissions.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

My final comment on Hattie.
Important research.
If you read all of Berliner and Glass and still think Hattie's findings are definitive, fine.
I don't think any research is definitive.

But I do think support for Hattie has been stated strongly by a number of you. I just hope each of you will read the book I've barely covered in this column before you draw your own conclusions.

Personal comment: I am a teacher. I think I had a profound affect on many students. I also know how small a part I played with students living in poverty and/or with highly disfunctional families. I did help. But my degree of impact was limited.

Like me, the authors of the book make it clear how important the role of the teacher is,

Final word. There is no gospel in ed research, including Berliner, Glass.,Hattie, and Marzano.
And certainly not Phillips!

Benjamin Light's picture
Benjamin Light
Technology Coach for an American School in Colombia, South America

Hattie's Research
This comes from Hattie's Book Visible Learning:

Average Effect for each of the major contributors to learning (The larger the effect size, the greater the impact on student achievement).
Student: 0.40
Home: 0.31
School: 0.23
Teacher: 0.49
Curricula: 0.45
Teaching: 0.42

This directly refutes Myth #1, especially what you put in bold.

Benjamin Light's picture
Benjamin Light
Technology Coach for an American School in Colombia, South America

A few thoughts:
1. I was previewing this book (some pages are available on Amazon) and it appears that Misters Berliner and Glass use Hattie's research to support the myth about teacher content knowledge (I didn't get to read that chapter, it wasn't available, but the index has Hattie's name in the page range of that myth). They did not use his research, however, when talking about any of the other myths. That frustrates me, and makes me question what pieces they chose to use from other sources.

2. We need to increase the rigor and effectiveness of our teacher selection process. It should be HARD to become a teacher. This is something we can CONTROL. We can't control child poverty, but giving ever child access to highly intelligent, highly passionate, highly engaged professionals might just help the poverty situation.

3. I would love to see a debate between the Berliner/Ravitch camp and the Marzano/Hattie camp.

Shabu Ans's picture
Shabu Ans
Making the Learning process more efficient !

Not sure whether this myth has been considered before or not : A disciplined environment is good for learning. For a student to start learning, he has to feel engaged. Discipline and engagement are often at odds with each other. Striking the right balance between being informal and formal is critical. A little bit of fun and humor goes a long way in this.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist


The researchers are Berliner and Glass. They do a comprehensive look at much of the research on each of the topics.
If you're truly interested in the research and the validity of the findings (or, if you decide, the invalidity!), please read the book.
What I did was choose just 8 of the 50 and summarize their findings.
Really, the important thing is to not take these myths for granted as "truths." Even if there is some truth in the myths, despite the research findings, the least we can do is be open to critically examining assumptions that may be wrong and may be destructive.

I am very appreciative of how much thinking is apparently being stimulated by this column and their book, whatever the conclusions drawn by each of you.

That you care and that you are taking the time to look at this speaks a lot about your professionalism and that of so many of your colleagues.

Jennie W.'s picture
Jennie W.
7th grade Language Arts

My thought when reading this article relates to Myth #5. I agree that suspensions and expulsions in a student's life may possibly lead to a future of possible drugs, crime, dropping out of school-at the very least. However, I have experienced the other side of districts telling administrators to lower suspensions and expulsions. At my school, admin was told to do this, so discipline became a crap shoot: discipline referrals were "dropped" to lower the numbers; students were given two, three, four "chances" to the point where there seemingly was no consequence; students had begun more challenging behaviors or downright dangerous behaviors. Permissiveness became the word of the day in order to be able to say that suspensions and expulsions were a thing of the past and negative discipline referrals were "down." Of course, teachers gave up referring students and simply tried to do it alone as the situation deteriorated, despite the union getting involved etc. The bottom line is, saying that suspensions and expulsions are "bad for kids" is fine. It is absolutely true. Not to provide some alternate program for students and parents alike IN PLACE OF those punitive measures puts the school population and teachers at risk for all sorts of unethical and possibly dangerous behaviors. These new programs need to be in place before this option is removed from the table. It requires lots of money, knowledgeable specialists and teachers to build such a program. I would like to know if one exists. (Not to mention the fact that we have more and more students dealing with mental illness nowadays.)


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