Researcher zaps school lobby’s money myth

By Krista Kafer While both untrue, myths and lies are not the same. A lie is meant to deceive, usually to gain an advantage that the truth would not likely yield. A myth, to borrow from Merriam-Webster, is “a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone...” But these guileless origins notwithstanding, myths can be as destructive as lies -- particularly when it comes to public policy.

When faced with emotionally charged issues like education, distinguishing between myth and fact can be difficult. Such a tangle of myths has grown up around public education that few know the facts.

Jay P. Greene, University of Arkansas professor and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and incidentally a friend of mine, just published a new book Education Myths : What Special-Interest Groups Want You to Believe About Our Schools and Why it Isn't So. The book debunks 18 popular myths about spending, class size reduction, testing and accountability, college access, school choice, and other policies.

Visiting Colorado this Tuesday, Jay spoke at a luncheon hosted by the Independence Institute. He also took on Rocky Mountain News journalist Laura Frank on the Mike Rosen show.

Frank’s multi-page article about education and Referendum C & D appeared in Tuesday’s News. While abundant in statistics and quotes from both sides, the underlying sentiment of the news article is that more money equals better education and Colorado schools do not get enough. Unchallenged and pervasive yet untrue, this idea is a prime example of the kind of myth that Jay Greene’s book addresses.

The Money Myth, as Jay calls it, asserts that public schools are underfunded and would improve if the taxpayer would simply pay up. This is not true. Statistics show funding for public schooling has increased substantially. Spending on the nation’s public schools doubled from $4,479 per pupil in 1971 to $8,922 in 2002 in inflation-adjusted dollars. The nation currently spends roughly $500 billion a year. This is more than we spend on defense. It is more, in fact, than the GDP of Russia.

Despite the high level of funding, achievement among high school seniors on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (a national test given to a representative sample of students across the country) in math and reading is about the same as it was in the early 1970’s. In 1971, 17-year-olds scored 285 on the reading test. In 2004, they scored 285. In 1973, 17-year-olds scored 304 in math. In 2004, their score was only three points higher. It is not surprising that a recent meta-analysis found that 129 of 163 studies showed no statistically significant relationship between spending and achievement.

Education Myths also addresses a related fiction, the Class-Size Myth. Touted as the cure-all for what’s ailing education, research shows that reducing class sizes does not impact achievement. The Tennessee pilot program that seemed so promising had no effect when adopted on a large scale. A Rand Corporation study of California’s expensive class-size reduction experiment found students in smaller classes did not make greater gains in learning.

Jay points out that a national reduction in the student-teacher ratio over the past three decades – from 22.3 in 1971 to 16.1 in 2002 – has had little apparent impact.

Education Myths also debunks the Teacher-Pay Myth. It is popular to portray teachers as eking out a meager existence. Yet, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average elementary school teacher made $30.75 an hour in 2002. That’s more per hour than biologists, mechanical engineers, police officers, and chemists made. Elementary school teachers made almost as much per hour as dentists and nuclear engineers.

These are just a sample of the myths debunked in Education Myths. For Coloradans, Jay Greene’s book couldn’t be timelier. Proponents of Referendum C & D have been tapping into the power of education myths. To be sure, there are schools that could use extra dollars, but in general, Colorado schools are well funded. Funding has increased every year. And funding will continue to increase, even if C & D fail to pass!

But it is doubtful this will have the impact on achievement that proponents predict. We know better. The Money Myth makes a good story, but like all myths, a poor basis for law.