Policy myths cause a lot of government’s problems
Can a school system built on imaginary premises possibly succeed?
Richard Rothstein spent three years as education columnist for the New York Times, giving a popular audience an unaccustomed look at the work of a scholar in sharp, to-the-point essays that challenged conventional wisdom and corrected public policy assumptions. Reading them and his current work as an associate at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., one gets the impression of a very patient man. Although he must deal constantly with public policy myths—things we all know to be “true” but are not—he keeps plugging away trying to dispel them."All I can do is keep on telling the truth as I see it, and others have to do the same,” Rothstein says. “In the long run, I have to hope the truth wins out.”
The number of myths on which so many public policies are built raise serious questions about whether those policies have any hope of succeeding. In education, there are a number of myths that have been repeated so incessantly by press and politicians that they have become “true” in the public’s mind. Samples:
• Business uses performance pay, so schools should do the same
• Schools are violent
• Parents and students are fleeing public for private schools
• Schools should use the kind of numerical goals that business uses
• Charter schools outperform public schools
In fact, business generally avoids performance pay, schools are the safest places children frequent, private school enrollment is declining, business recommends against numerical goals, and public schools generally perform better than charter schools.
Take just one of them—numerical goals, which were actually written into the No Child Left Behind Act in the belief that they are an accepted business practice. In fact, it reflects a practice that has long since passed out of fashion in the business world, which found that it focused workers on process instead of outcome and generated fear in the workplace, low productivity, and customer alienation.
Using modern research methods, the business community discovered that when a worker must have numbers to show, she or he will crank them out by some means, at the expense of careful workmanship and productivity. Legendary statistician W. Edwards Deming, who in the postwar years gave Japanese management the methods of design, product quality and sales that brought that nation to commercial dominance and later swept the United States, wrote in his book Out Of the Crisis, “A numerical goal leads to distortion and faking, especially when the system is not capable of meeting the goal. Anybody will meet the quota (goal) allotted to him. He is not responsible for the losses so generated. Sears Roebuck waded into trouble in 1992 by allotting goals to their Auto Service Centers. Agents tried to meet the goals set for them. They did, to the detriment of the customer and of the reputation of the company.”
Insurance consultant John Pryor tells the companies he advises, “Focus first on the underwriting or claims or audit processes—and the quality of their delivery from the customer’s perspective—and then it can be determined if productivity is optimum.”
Yet numerical goals—what Rothstein calls “goals distortion” are a basic part of U.S. education policy.
Our peaceful schools
In 1998 during the spate of heavily publicized school shootings around the nation, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice checked some figures on school violence against figures provided by the National Climatic Data Center. “To give the reader a sense of the idiosyncratic nature of these [school violence] events,” the CJCJ reported, “the number of children killed by gun violence in schools is about half the number of Americans killed annually by lightning strikes.”
Nothing has changed since then. There were more deaths on school grounds 32 years ago, when there were 80 million fewer people in the United States than there are today—usually less than 50 annually. Of home, the 7-Eleven, the park, school is their safest environ—far safer than the home, where as many children are killed in family violence every three days as died at Columbine. But the myth lives on.
Rothstein has been a one-person myth-buster in the education field by doing what reporters are supposed to do—checking the facts and statistics before reporting a “trend” (which may be the most abused word in journalism).
When in the early years of the Bush administration members of Congress were arguing that the private sector uses performance pay, so schools should do likewise, Rothstein went looking for companies that did so. He talked to firms like Wal-Mart and Cisco Systems, consulted Harvard Business School, called private and commercials schools. All told him the same thing. “The private sector does nothing of the sort,” he said. He even called John Chubb at Edison Schools Inc., the largest firm that tries to get contracts to commercially operate public schools. Chubb said using test scores to influence pay was a mistake. (Rothstein does acknowledge that “stockbrokers and sales clerks are paid on commission” but says the hardball sales tactics the practice fosters “should be intolerable where children are concerned.")
What George Bush, in his 2000 campaign, called parents voting with their feet—taking kids out of public and into private schools—did not escape Rothstein’s notice. He found that the actual number showed enrollment falling in private schools at every income level.
The charter school myth has been examined in depth, with Rothstein a part of it. In their book The Charter School Dust-Up, authors Martin Carnoy, Rebecca Jacobsen, Lawrence Mishel, and Rothstein examined 19 studies in 11 states and the District of Columbia, and then folded in data from the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. Their conclusion: “There is no evidence that, on average, charter schools outperform regular public schools. In fact, there is evidence that the average impact of charter schools is negative.” (Their study also found that a claim that charter schools serve more disadvantaged students than public schools was false.)
In some cases, legislators have enacted legislation knowing full well that it was flawed. Rothstein recalls that during the debates over No Child Left Behind, economists Thomas Kane and Douglas Staiger produced a paper showing that, under the legislation, schools would be rewarded or penalized entirely because of dubious statistics produced by inadequate testing. Months went by while members of Congress wrestled with the problem. Then, they just gave up and passed the bill anyway.
“It’s a mistake to adopt policies that you know, based on the science, cannot work effectively,” Rothstein said.
None of this would matter much if it was harmless, but it is very harmful. Though the pendulum is now swinging back, for a decade precious education dollars were diverted to expensive high tech security gear, more police and weapons, expansion of juvenile jails. Various panaceas were legislated. In Virginia, the governor proposed eliminating after-school programs, an established violence preventive.
No Child Left Behind has exacerbated long-standing education problems, such as teacher shortages.
Can a school system succeed when its policy premises are false?
Former Nevada school superintendent Eugene Paslov says policy myths are complicated—he says they are like onions, with merit to be found in some levels as they are peeled—"Some of it has merit and much of it is mythology.” It’s hard to imagine hard pressed school administrators having the time or resources to sort things out.
Washoe County School District spokesperson Steve Mulvenon says he has to spend unnecessary amounts of time helping reporters do stories about school violence in the hope that they’ll get it right, though at times he has become so exasperated that he has considered cutting off assistance to such stories. “I guess I need to keep putting the message out there on each one of these incidents, that it is an aberration, that it is unusual.”