The presidential campaign and administration of Donald Trump have spurred a focus on the role of mainstream media as well as the influence of fake news and post-truth discourse on political and public debate.
For those of us involved in education and the education reform movement, however, the negative consequences of post-truth discourse have been around for more than a century—and during the past three decades, a harbinger of what the Trump phenomenon has brought to the U.S.
While fake news is a specific term about using click-bait headlines and purposefully false “news” to generate revenue, the concept of post-truth is more complex, and adjacent to that is the much less often addressed issue of how media and politicians often mislead through ignorance and bias grounded in common-sense beliefs that are not supported by evidence.
In those latter gray areas rest the problems associated with claims about education and education reform.
Now that we are admitting and confronting post-truth discourse and the role of media as well as the credibility of political leaders, the path to improved education must include rescuing education reform from decades of post-truth debate.
Here, then, I want to highlight the most common but false claims about education and education reform, false claims found throughout the media and at all levels of political leadership regardless of party affiliation:
(1) Public schools are a failure. This is one of the oldest and most enduring claims about K-12 education in the U.S. It is a standard punch line that is false by oversimplification. Before explaining this one, let’s add the second and related false claim.
(2) When we adjust for poverty, U.S. public schools are not failing. This is the standard rebuttal to the first bullet point, and while statistically true, this is false by omission. To understand both these first two points, we have to make a really difficult admission that almost no one is willing to make: Public schools in the U.S. have historically reflected and perpetuated social advantages and inequity—and continue to do so today.
The more blunt version is that public schools have virtually no impact on the narrow data we use to judge school quality, mainly test scores. Standardized measures of academic achievement are most powerfully linked to out-of-school (OOS) factors.
Therefore, neither of the first two claims are fully true; the first is the same as blaming hospitals for housing sick patients, and the second is a glossing over that public schools do far too often fail racial subgroups (black and brown students), impoverished students, English language learners, and special needs students (vulnerable populations of students).
(3) Teachers are the most important part of children’s education. Again, this is a lazy but effective claim, repeated often by political leaders. In fact, teacher quality accounts for only about 10-15% of measurable student achievement, dwarfed by OOS factors (accounting for at least 60%) and typically about the same or less than school quality.
If we connect the first three claims, we can begin to see a better and more honest appraisal since teacher assignment reflects privilege and disadvantage: privileged students (white and affluent) are mostly assigned to experienced and certified teachers while vulnerable populations of students are assigned new and un-/under-certified teachers.
(4) Private and/or charter schools outperform public schools. Evidence overwhelmingly shows that, if we return to the second claim (false by omission, but statistically accurate), the type of school is not the key to quality, but demographics of student populations tend to correlate strongly with measurable outcomes. Thus, since many people focus on elite and selective private schools, the political and public claims about private schools are, again, lazy. When adjusted for student populations, private, charter, and public schools are about the same; however, private and charter schools benefit from misleading advocacy while public schools suffer under claim 1 above.
(5) Measurable student outcomes are driven by either low expectations or “rigor”—both of which can be traced to school climate and the quality of standards. Two of the most popular claims during the most recent thirty years of education reform have been targeting the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and periodically calling for more “rigorous” standards. Both of these are at least problematic since as long as we focus on standardized test scores, these claims mask the elephant in the room about the strong correlations between race/class and test scores.
The “soft bigotry of low expectations” fails as a way to blame the victims (both poor and minority children in schools as well as the disproportionately inexperienced and un-/under-qualified teachers charged to teach them). And three decades of ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests have shown that neither the presence nor quality of standards correlates with greater student achievement or a closing of the so-called achievement gap.
(6) A world-class education system is needed to be internationally competitive. Disproven repeatedly, how any country ranks in educational quality (usually test scores again) does not correlate with economic power internationally. This claim sound good, and obvious, but has no basis in fact.
(7) Education is the great equalizer, or a game changer. Simply put, no it isn’t. At every level of educational attainment—from not completing high school to advanced degrees—income is still deeply inequitable within each level by both race and gender: with undereducated white males still earning more than better educated black and white men and all women:
(8) K-12 teachers and university professors are indoctrinating students with leftwing politics. A favorite and renewed form of fear-mongering from the right is to paint all levels of education as liberal indoctrination. This claim is false as oversimplification and from misreading that K-12 education and universities are mostly reflections of social norms and not radical or revolutionary institutions.
Part of this false claim comes from associating tradition and dogma with the right and questioning tradition and dogma with the left. In that sense, then, yes, all education is leftwing, but these characterizations also frame the right as inherently indoctrination.
Also, this misconception is grounded in misunderstanding the political nature of education and that many people view anything outside of their beliefs as politically threatening. For conservative people, teaching patriotism in U.S. history seems neutral—although that is political and potentially indoctrinating.
Ultimately, how we talk about and view education impacts powerfully what policies we embrace. Education policy has been ineffective and even harmful over the past three to four decades because of a post-truth dynamic just now being acknowledged in our wider political discourse.
The truth is that we have mostly failed education and our students—not that K-12 or higher education have failed us.
Accountability based on standards and high-stakes tests, school choice (from vouchers to charter schools), intensified teacher evaluation—all of these and more have failed repeatedly because they are solutions grounded in post-truth claims about schools.
Education should be about the pursuit of the truth, but that pursuit is fraught with complications. We have for many decades tarnished that pursuit of truth by making enduring and compelling claims about education that simply are not accurate.
If we are genuinely committed to the truth, let’s start with an honest discussion about our schools so that we can begin to build the education our children and democracy deserve.