George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Trends

8 Myths That Undermine Educational Effectiveness


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.

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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.