The new year is a great time for reflecting on deeply held beliefs that might not actually be true. To that end, I’ve compiled eight ideas that are put forth by many in the education policy debate but lack good evidence. These pieces of semi-conventional wisdom — myths, if you will — pop up again and again in the education debate, often asserted as statements of fact. Some of them I’ve tackled before; others are new.
An important caveat, before we begin: I’ve evaluated these myths based on existing studies, but new evidence may emerge that changes the weight of research — that’s part of the scientific process. Moreover, contexts vary, so research done in one place may not necessarily apply elsewhere. I’m not saying these claims are never true or will never be true, depending on the context or new research.
These familiar talking points should be read with these considerations in mind: as a set of common assertions that generally lack strong evidence and should therefore be viewed, I argue here, with skepticism.
No Child Left Behind failed to improve student achievement
This is treated as a fact by some commentators, politicians and reporters, but the evidence suggests that the law had meaningful positive effects on students’ math test scores, including on low-stakes exams like the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Of course, NCLB has been succeeded by the Every Student Succeeds Act, but the evidence that test-based accountability can lead to meaningful improvement in student outcomes still holds true and should continue to inform policy going forward.
Students will inevitably be better off if their “failing” public school is closed
In an essay titled “The Urgent Moral Case for Replacing Persistently Failing Schools,” Joel Klein and John White argue, “The American education system presents intolerably long odds to low-income children attending persistently struggling schools, and sometimes the most appropriate response to dramatic failure is dramatic intervention.”
Klein and White have a case: Studies of New York City and New Orleans have shown that students can indeed benefit when bad schools are shut down.
But overall, the research is quite mixed: In many cases, students from closed (purportedly ineffective) schools don’t end up any better off. In fact, in places like Baton Rouge and Milwaukee, students from closed schools actually were worse off. The mixed results are probably because students from closed schools don’t necessarily end up at better ones, and also because changing schools can increase instability.
White acknowledged that shuttering schools isn’t always successful, saying that in Baton Rouge, closures were part of “a hodgepodge of district-led and some state-led interventions, but neither, at the time of their inception, was part of a comprehensive plan.”
None of this means that closing a low-performing school is necessarily unwise, but it’s far from a guarantee of better results if there aren’t better schools to serve the displaced students.
Private, selective-enrollment and charter schools are better, on average, than traditional public schools
Families pay big tuition for their children to attend private schools; students study for and take extensive tests to attend selective-enrollment schools in many cities; families enter lotteries or join waiting lists to get into charter schools.
But several studies show that good old traditional public schools stack up pretty well compared with these popular alternatives. Adjusted for demographics, private school students actually do worse on math tests than their public school counterparts, and voucher systems that give students public money to attend private schools have produced mixed results, often showing little or even negative effects. Highly sought-after selective-enrollment schools in Chicago and New York City don’t lead more students to enroll in college. Meanwhile, students at charter schools nationally — even those that are in high demand — perform about the same on standardized tests as students at traditional public schools.
This doesn’t mean that specific schools or geographic sectors of schools aren’t standouts (for instance, Boston’s charter sector significantly outperforms the city’s traditional schools) or that families may prefer different types of schools based on something other than measured performance. But the metrics we have suggest that you shouldn’t judge a school by its sector.
Charter schools and vouchers harm the performance of traditional public schools
Opponents of expanding school choice often argue that such programs drain money from traditional public schools and ultimately hurt students who remain there. This was a key argument in the successful campaign against raising Massachusetts’s charter cap. Although it is true that choice programs can put a fiscal strain on school districts, there is very little evidence that they reduce the test scores of traditional public school students. Studies on charter schools and voucher programs find that student performance in district schools either stays the same or improves slightly, perhaps in response to competition.
Two important caveats are in order: First, this research is largely based on standardized test scores, a useful but imperfect gauge of performance. Second, the studies usually focus on relatively small-scale choice programs; results may be different in the case of much larger expansions, like President-elect Donald Trump’s sweeping school voucher proposal.
Making students take a test to graduate high school helps them in the long run
Many states have exams that students need to take and pass in order to graduate. The thinking is that such tests make a high school diploma more meaningful and raise academic standards. The policy has reasonable logic, but remarkably little evidence to support it. A slew of studies have found that high school exit exams yield few of the benefits that their proponents promise — but produce a number of unintended consequences, like increased dropout rates, that hit poor kids of color the hardest. Perhaps because of the Common Core, many states are moving away from graduation tests — a move that is probably for the best.
Spending money wisely on schools is more important than how much money is spent
This common talking point is both unproven and likely unprovable, but it has calcified into conventional wisdom among many politicians, pundits and even some education scholars. As Harvard professor Heather Hill put it, “How schools use dollars appears to matter more than the mere presence of dollars.”
What makes this claim so strange is that it puts two things at odds — how much money is spent vs. how it is spent — that are actually complementary. After all, money that does not exist cannot be spent wisely or unwisely; it cannot be spent, period. Presumably, the best option would be for schools to have more money and to spend it wisely. An additional problem with the argument is that it is nearly impossible to test empirically. It is sort of like asking which is preferable: spending $0 wisely or $1 unwisely?
The basic idea behind this notion is that pouring more money into the prevailing system — sometimes derisively called “The Blob” — amounts to throwing good money after bad. Research does not support this view, however. Recent research has found that court-ordered infusions of resources have led to improved outcomes for students. In these studies, the additional money tends to be spent on higher teacher salaries, lower class sizes, longer school days and better school facilities.
Education reform policies have led to a large exodus and plummeting morale among teachers
A single survey in 2012 showed that teacher morale had dropped, likely because of budget cuts. But this one finding, and a blizzard of anecdotes, have helped cement the idea that teachers are unhappy and leaving the classroom at alarming rates — probably because of oppressive education reform policies. The only problem with this narrative is that there’s very little evidence it’s true.
For instance, research finds that No Child Left Behind did not harm teacher job satisfaction or retention. And although interest in teaching is dropping, this does not seem to be driven by accountability or testing, but rather by pay and layoff policies.
Head Start is a waste of money and has no long-term benefit for students
Critics of Head Start, the federal pre-K program, point to federally funded, relatively short-term studies showing that benefits for students who participate disappear quickly. The program, this line of thinking goes, is a gigantic waste of money, a classic case of a bureaucracy sucking in money without producing any bang for the buck.
In fact, research shows that Head Start can lead to long-term benefits for kids who have the chance to participate. The problem with short-term studies is that even though benefits of a program — usually measured by test scores — may fade out after a few years, they may also “reappear” in adulthood. That’s exactly what one study of Head Start found: Participants were more likely to graduate high school and attend college than siblings who weren’t part of the program. Researchers have also found that the initiative is likely a good investment: There’s nearly a 2-to-1 return for each dollar spent on Head Start.