Back when I was a graduate student, I would have been kicked out of my program for playing fast and
loose with words and data the way that so many in the education reform debates do. These falsehoods
are debasing what should be meaningful conversations about helping kids, teachers, and our public
school system do better.
Myth #1: Teaching is the only profession whose employees are not held accountable for results.
The argument goes: Teachers never get fired, they are treated like widgets even though some are better
than others, and this is outrageous since obviously "every other profession" pays, promotes, and fires
their employees based on their "results," right? On the contrary, teaching is the only profession for which
laws are popping up almost daily, that seek to evaluate employees based on creating complex changes in
another human being. If student achievement is a crisis in this country as it is claimed to be, certainly
health, addiction, and obesity are national crises as well. So where are all the laws limiting pay raises to
only those doctors who cause their patients to stop smoking, eat healthily, and maintain a healthy
I am all for reforming the tenure process and making it easier to fire incompetent teachers. But if we
could so easily achieve change in socially complex behaviors by using monetary rewards and
punishments, we would have already been doing so in other professions, and the countries whose
achievement records we so often tout would be doing so in their education systems, but we don't and
Myth #2: We haven't gotten our money's worth in the education system, because investment has
increased, yet achievement scores have remained flat.
Bill Gates himself penned an article in the Huffington Post charting education investments against NAEP
scores (National Assessment of Educational Progress). This chart, and every conclusion that could be
drawn from it, range from the misleading to the patently false. Most importantly, the NAEP trends are
not flat. There have been modest but statistically significant improvements of a size that would be
expected due to real improvements in achievement. Can we also agree on the ridiculousness of depicting
one number in the thousands in the same chart as another number in the single and double digits? It's
like comparing two travel distances when one map is zoomed in and the other is not. Something tells me
that Bill Gates might be pretty good with numbers and therefore has no trouble understanding this.
The question of whether an investment vs. test score gain comparison even makes sense in the first place
is another matter. A more meaningful question might be about educational investment vs. the drop-out
rate. According to the Institute for Education Sciences the drop-out rate has declined significantly since
the early 1970's for all income groups. If you are concerned that today's rates or remaining disparities
between the races and classes are still unacceptably high, you get no argument from me. But to say that
we have not achieved a return on investment is downright mythical.
Myth #3: Anti-testing advocates think the status quo is fine, don't care about results or kids, and only
care about protecting teachers and unions.
This myth is based on overlooking the simple fact that statistical errors always cut both ways. That is, value-
added estimates can overestimate teachers just as easily as underestimate them. One of the founders of
value-added modeling admits, "Can you distinguish within the middle? No, you can't. Not with the
most rigorous and robust value-added process you can bring to the problem." Research has confirmed
this caution, showing that a full one-fourth of teacher ratings will be wrong -- in either direction. Thus,
you might even say that test-based evaluation is "soft on accountability" since it protects many ineffective
Test-obsessed reformers have my greatest fear exactly wrong. I am not worried that hoards of qualified
teachers will be fired, but rather that the uninspired ones will be left alone. Although the Gates study is
conducting observations in classrooms, the youngest grade examined is fourth. Thus, despite having no
evidence that our children will be protected against a "by any means necessary" approach to teaching,
new laws in several states like Colorado and Missouri mandate that teacher evaluations based on student
achievement growth extend down to kindergarten or even preschool. Don't believe anyone who tells you
that the non-test based portion of the evaluation provides such protections. After all the exaltation of test
scores as the only objective measure of teacher performance, do you really think disciplinary actions for
teachers with good test score growth but poor teaching practices would pass the sniff test?
Myth #4: Since the system is broken, and teachers are so important, they must have broken it.
I have no doubt that the top 10% of teachers are so skilled at their craft that they are producing
achievement gains despite dwindling resources, increasing class sizes, and no mentoring support. The
others may deserve to be subject to a watchful eye or even dismissed, but this is not reform so much as
yelling the old rules more loudly. Reformers need to get their argument straight: Is the system broken
and therefore needs a radical change, or does the system work just fine as it is so long as you add more
Yes, ultimately, innovation and quality control will both be part of the solution, but blaming teachers for
the problem only makes sense if the system has given them every possible opportunity to succeed. A
recent New York Times op-ed piece made this point well when they compared teachers to soldiers,
explaining that when military endeavors fail "we don't say 'it's these lazy soldiers and their bloated
benefit plans!'" but rather we look to bigger-picture infrastructure and higher-up leadership for the
reasons for failure. We also don't say that the success of some soldiers proves that that the unsuccessful
ones are at fault. We also don't create unnecessary competition among soldiers, leading them to
withhold their good ideas from their platoon.
We don't say or do any of these things because, as techniques for creating positive change, they are not
only mythical, they are absurd, ineffective, and immoral.
I know, I know -- I'm just a whiny myth-debunker with no solutions. For some good ideas about what to
do instead of perpetuating myths, see Kevin Welner's column about his and Carol Burris'
recommendations to Arne Duncan. In future columns, I'll be writing about innovative, evidence-based
practices being used in preschool and the early grades to increase the quality and rigor of early education.