Guest Column

Fallacies Worth Fighting

by JOHN A. KAUFHOLD


With the dawn of a new century, it is tantalizing to imagine what education will be like in the future. Will computers rule the day? Will schools as a physical entity disappear as more and more students learn at home through on-line instruction? Will books disappear and be replaced by video discs?

Whatever the changes in the delivery of instruction and the structure of schools, public education will continue to face some long-held myths. These falsehoods and exaggerations surrounding public education must be renounced.

  • Myth No. 1: All children can learn.

     

    The distinction between the phrases "all children can learn" and "all children will learn" is fine. Children, as most parents know, learn no matter what. It is a child’s nature to explore and experiment with his or her surroundings and, in the process, we know that learning takes place. The task of educators, however, is to get children to learn what they need to know.

    Will children learn what they need to know to compete in the modern world? Unfortunately, for many children the answer is "No." There are still too many disparities that exist in funding, facilities and community support. Allan S. Vann, in his article "More Than a Village" in the American School Board Journal, states: "Not all children can learn with the present levels of financial support for education."

    Vann, a principal, noted that politicians demand that schools raise standards in an attempt to ensure that students can compete in the job market. He concluded by asking, "Do they propose increasing federal or state aid to provide intervention programs to better prepare our weakest students? Usually no."

    Before all children do learn, it takes a concerted effort from parents and local, state and federal governments.

     

  • Myth No. 2: Teachers alone are responsible for students’ learning.

     

    In Broward County, Fla., the school board has revised the district’s teacher evaluation programs to hold teachers accountable for standardized test scores. This was done with the blessing of the superintendent at the time--someone known for being "high on the accountability bandwagon."

    Apparently, these educational leaders have forgotten that before children can learn, they must be raised by parents who prepare them well for school. Unfortunately, many parents do not read to their children, talk to them at dinner, discipline them properly or give them necessary medical attention. Teachers have no control over what kind of student walks into the classroom and no control over what happens when the student goes home.

     

  • Myth No. 3: Standardized test scores reflect the total level of students’ learning.

     

    In reality, standardized test scores do not present an accurate picture of a student’s level of learning--nor are they intended for this purpose. Scores from standardized tests can best be used to provide a snapshot of a student’s progress from year to year in selected portions of the school curriculum.

    To present test results as the entire picture of achievement is inaccurate and to use these results to compare students in different locales is misleading. Without a national curriculum, a standard level of school financing and an equitable level of personnel across the country, how can students from California to North Carolina be compared with any degree of accuracy?

    Sadly, the quest for scoring high has even filtered down to the grading system. In their article, "Teachers Say Grades Aren’t Enough," in the American School Board Journal, Jeannel Hubelbank and Peter Airasian report that in a survey from six Massachusetts school districts, 44 percent of the teachers stated that their grading system did not allow them to assess higher-order thinking skills. The researchers concluded, "Are parents receiving an accurate picture of their child’s learning? Many teachers would answer 'no.'"

     

  • Myth No. 4: U.S. schools lag behind their foreign counterparts.

     

    Scarcely a day goes by without a newspaper or magazine somewhere bemoaning the fact American students are far behind their peers in Japan, Germany or England in their test scores. Gerald Bracey, in his book The Truth About American Schools, presents two interesting arguments against this charge.

    The first is that international comparisons are odious and relatively meaningless because the "students are not comparable, the curricula are not comparable, the schools are not comparable and even the tests are not comparable." Further, many foreign countries screen out their weaker students for industrial or technical placements by the time they reach adolescence.

    Bracey’s second point is that, test scores aside, "the U.S. already leads the world in science, mathematics and technology." Evidence to support this claim is presented by the overwhelming dominance of American researchers in journals of mathematics, medicine, physics and space science, to name a few. A good question to ask the critics of U.S. schools is "How could our schools be so bad if many of the graduates are so good?"

     

  • Myth No. 5: Non-educators can solve educational problems.

     

    Many people have implicit faith in what they read in the newspapers or see on television. When stories are reported about the sad state of American schools, non-educators step forward with the belief that they have the answers to cure the problem.

    This is an understandable reaction. While everyone has not been in a courtroom or an operating room for any length of time, most everyone has spent 12 years in a classroom. To many, the educational task looks easy.

    Thus we have business people applying business-type quick fixes. School boards will fire the CEO, insist on quality control (by holding teachers accountable for test scores) and slash budgets (to exclude "frills" courses). Unfortunately, these measures have only exacerbated the problems.

    Sadly, these aren’t the only myths that surround education. Well-meaning parents rush students into intensive pre-school programs while believing that this will ensure academic success. School officials, on the other hand, still group students using the supposition that all students learn at the same pace. If the United States is to prosper during the next century, these myths must be discarded.

    John Kaufhold, a former superintendent, is an associate professor of education at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, Department of Education, MSC 196, Kingsville, TX 78363-8202. E-mail: kfjak00@tamuk.edu

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