Paul Farhi turns in a “5 myths” piece about education for The Washington Post. It’s a mixed bag and a lot of strawmen that miss some opportunities to actually look at complicated questions.  But a few of the “myths” deserve more discussion.

In particular Farhi cites the modestly rising high school graduation rates and SAT/ACT scores as evidence that the idea that are schools are failing is a myth.  He also cites international comparisons, and I tend to agree with that point. But the status dropout numbers Farhi uses understate the problem because they don’t count some populations.  Besides, we have better numbers because states are finally starting to count actual students.  The good news?  High School graduation rates are up.  The bad news? Only to 75 percent overall and less for minorities (64 percent for Hispanics and 62 percent for African-Americans). More stunning, the college completion rate for low-income students is 8 percent by age 24.  8 percent.  Farhi’s of course free to argue, as he implicitly does, that such an outcome is OK.  I’d like to think he doesn’t have too much company.  He also points out that low-income and English-language learners struggle but fails to note that minority kids lag behind (on NAEP for example) regardless of whether they’re in urban or suburban (or rural) school districts.  More textured take on that myth:  Depends how you define “failure” but there are a lot of kids – in all types of American communities – facing some long odds.

Farhi also takes on the myth that “billionaires know best.”  I don’t know anyone who agrees with that but the discussion does open the door to a important issue.  He writes, “There’s no doubt that these schools can use every dime that rich guys give. But attaching strings for pet projects is elitist and wasteful.”  Really?  What exactly is a string?  Does Farhi just give money to charities blind with no concern about what they use it for?  I don’t. If you care about hunger, for instance, you give to charitable organizations working on that issue. Likewise if you care about clean water, bike lanes, or the arts you do the same.  And Farhi doesn’t have to go far to learn about this.  He might want to check with the Washington Post’s publisher, who is an active philanthropist, to see if he targets his money or just sends it out shotgun style.  Or he could just check out the scholarships the Post offers to students, they have strings, too.  The point is that all charitable giving has strings attached, no one writes a blank check.  The closest thing to a blank check is arguably the annual MacArthur grants but even there the recipients have gone through a rigorous selection and diligence process prior to the award – call that a front-end string.  Today’s grantmakers don’t have it all figured out, to be sure, but the idea that you should just give money without any direction for or attention to what it’s going to be used for is disproven by a lot of experience in this sector.

The other “myths” such as “charter schools are the answer” and “more effective teachers are the answer” would be more accurate statements if “one” were substituted for “the.”  Otherwise these are myths looking for myth makers.

Update: Luke Kohlmoos has more.

9 Replies to “Mythical”

  1. I think the difference between a foundation spending money on a project is much different from an individual donating to a specific issue/cause. In the former, the foundation has received no one’s buy-in other than a selected board or paid staff. In the latter, an individual giving money, time, resources is creating the buy-in to the cause. The former can live on its own without approval of a community or organization. The latter can live on only with continued support of a base.

    While I think foundations can and do a lot a good, it is very troubling when foundations are spending billions in the aggregate on education reform without the approval of voters, school board, etc.

    People take money when dangled in front of them. This doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do. It’s not always for the kids.

  2. Behind Grass-Roots School Advocacy, Bill Gates
    Published: May 21, 2011

    INDIANAPOLIS — A handful of outspoken teachers helped persuade state lawmakers this spring to eliminate seniority-based layoff policies. They testified before the legislature, wrote briefing papers and published an op-ed article in The Indianapolis Star.

    They described themselves simply as local teachers who favored school reform — one sympathetic state representative, Mary Ann Sullivan, said, “They seemed like genuine, real people versus the teachers’ union lobbyists.” They were, but they were also recruits in a national organization, Teach Plus, financed significantly by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

  3. I believe that strings need to be attached when someone donates funds. We should be grateful for their donation rather than critical if the strings do not suit all.

  4. “They were, but they were also recruits in a national organization, Teach Plus, financed significantly by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

    there were lots of interesting pieces in that article, you pulled the least interesting one.

  5. I’d definitely agree that the WP article was full of half-truths and misleading statements. Regarding the stats about higher graduation rates, we’ve had a similar experience here in Denver where graduation rates are going up BUT the percentage of kids needing remedial courses in post-high school is also going up. Obviously just graduating is not enough. We need kids to actually learn something.

    Regarding item 2, anyone who has been in the public school system can tell you about incompetent or even malicious teachers who continue teaching for years…with nary a peep from the unions. How is it possible that only 1% of teachers in DPS have been dismissed for poor performance? Either the hiring process is phenomenally good or, well, you get the idea.

    No, charter schools are not THE answer, but they can certainly help. While the public school system can’t or won’t change from a lousy math curriculum to a better one, charter schools are flexible enough to choose a good curriculum from the start.

    No, better teachers are not THE answer, but I don’t think you can argue that yes they make a big difference. What is often not mentioned is that while teachers can’t always make up for impoverished backgrounds, poor teaching is often masked by “enriched” backgrounds. Parents of means will often supplement with tutors when needed, but the teachers get the credit with the high test scores at the end of the year.

  6. Concerned parent:”How is it possible that only 1% of teachers in DPS have been dismissed for poor performance? ”

    How many teachers elect to leave, thus do not show up on your stats?

    tom Says:
    May 23rd, 2011 at 4:52 pm
    “They were, but they were also recruits in a national organization, Teach Plus, financed significantly by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

    there were lots of interesting pieces in that article, you pulled the least interesting one.

    What tom does not say:
    what are the interesting ones.

  7. Myths:
    1.Our schools are failing.
    2. Unions defend bad teachers.
    3. Billionaires know best.
    4. Charter schools are the answer.
    5. More effective teachers are the answer.

    With the exception of #4, those are the words of Michelle Rhee.
    Is Andrew Rotherham forgetful?
    Or is he disingenuous?

  8. A good piece missed by Eduwonk:

    Cathie Black and the Education Business
    concluding grafs:

    Nowhere is this more apparent than in the United States today. Bloomberg’s appointment of Black is merely one local instance of attempts to dominate school systems by economic and political forces. From Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s notorious attack on teacher unions and teacher tenure to New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s threat to pursue the same goal, we see the political pressures on education. Nor is the federal government innocent of the same attempts. In order for New York State to win money in Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top,” the state had to double the number of charter schools—often nonunion—it allowed that student performance on standardized tests be part of teacher evaluations. And, as Joanne Barkan’s “Got Dough” details, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Foundation, all financed by billions of private dollars, have the same “market-based goal for overhauling public education.”

    The real problem, then, that public education faces today is not teachers and their unions—the favorite scapegoats—but the powerful political and economic forces that threaten the necessary independence of education in a democratic society.

  9. Hanky Panky at The Post, or Bill Turque edited again:

    Here is a bit of what Bill’s bosses edited out of his original article.

    “Let’s say there are signs of a serious problem in your house. Water is dripping from ominous stains that are spreading across the ceiling. Maybe there’s mold in the basement. Or cracks in the walls that weren’t there before. You hire the best contractor you can find.

    And you ask him to paint the fence in the front yard.

    That’s how skeptics characterize DCPS’ approach to investigating possible cheating on the 2010 DC CAS. It retained Caveon Test Security –as it did after the 2009 CAS–to look at classrooms with high rates of wrong-to-right erasures. But like the homeowner with signs of big trouble behind the walls, Acting Chancellor Kaya Henderson didn’t ask Caveon to use all of the forensic tools at its disposal. Nor did Caveon to look at all of the more than 110 classrooms across 41 schools flagged by CTB/McGraw-Hill for elevated levels of erasures. DCPS asked the firm to look at just ten schools….

    …Like any contractor, Caveon was doing what it was asked to do. Had DCPS asked, the Utah-based firm could have analyzed answer sheets at greater depth–far beyond erasure rates, which even Caveon founder John Fremer says are the crudest and least reliable marker for possible testing misconduct.

    It could have searched for patterns of collusion, looking for unusual levels of agreement on answers among students seated near eachother. It could have checked for logical inconsistencies in answer patterns, determining if students were doing unusually well on the harder questions while getting easier ones wrong. It could have gone back and looked at prior-year performance by students, or the performance of classrooms under certain teachers in the past…

    …more than 4,000 teachers, parents and other stakeholders… have signed a petition asking that the Education Department and/or the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) conduct an inquiry that would include “sworn, public testimony from principals, administrators and the former and current District and state leadership, as well as forensic analysis of student scores compared to other measures of what students know.

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