Education Opinion

Half-Truths About Public Schools

By Walt Gardner — November 03, 2014 2 min read
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One of the most effective propaganda techniques is the use of half-truths to mold public opinion. Unlike bald-faced lies, which are easily refuted, half-truths contain just enough credibility to persist. Consider the assertion by Joel Klein that great teachers can turn around failing schools if they are “both temperamentally and intellectually equipped for the modern classroom” (“A Lesson Plan for A+ Teachers,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 1).

As I pointed out in a letter to the editor about a column by Frank Bruni, I agree that teachers are the most important in-school factor in student learning (“What Makes the Best Teacher?The New York Times, Nov. 1). But I emphasize that even the greatest teachers can help only a small handful of students overcome the huge deficits they bring to class through no fault of their own. I make this prediction even if tenure were abolished, and principals were allowed to hire whomever they wanted and pay them based strictly on their performance.

Believing otherwise is a myth that assumes teachers are miracle workers. But they cannot overcome conditions outside of school that play a disproportionate role in student performance. Critics will be quick to point to parental choice to refute my view. However, the high-flying schools that parents choose serve as an example of self-selection at work. Even though the students enrolled come from impoverished backgrounds, their parents are deeply involved in their education. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have bothered to take advantage of the choices open to them in the first place. If all public schools had the same freedom to admit students whom they wanted and the same parental involvement, the differences would be insignificant.

Recognizing the need to address unequal opportunities, California’s new finance system provides schools with an extra 20 percent in funds for each disadvantaged student and an additional grant for each student in schools where at least 55 percent of students are low-income, learning English or in foster care. Nevertheless, I do not believe that this approach alone will eliminate the achievement gap. The best it can do is to narrow it slightly. That’s certainly an admirable goal, but the effect of great teachers in these schools is minimal compared to the existence of involved parents.

There will always be natural variations among individual students of all races. That’s why no standard can be both challenging to and achievable by all students, no matter who the teacher is. It’s an undeniable fact of life that is given short shrift in the contentious debate about the achievement gap. But reformers persist in the fiction that inspired teachers can produce equal results if they are given proper training, sufficient support and attractive incentives. It’s a half-truth.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.