The Top 7 Most Infuriating Myths About the U.S. Education System

photo credit: Cayusa via photopin cc
photo credit: Cayusa via photopin cc

A conversation that I seem to have, both offline and online, each with a moderate amount of frequency, is about teaching. Much of the time it comes up when I'm talking with a parent who is upset about something their child's school has done. I am actually asked for my advice on it from my point of view as someone who makes daily decisions about students as well as my position as a parent who has put children through both the private and public school system. (This happens a lot at parties where people just want to "pick my brain.") What astounds me is not so much how often I find myself in the middle of a discussion, but how quickly the conversation spirals toward that old myth that "teaching isn't that hard" and that's where I push back with ferocity.

While everyone's experience is different, I've tried to use my own background to defend the top 7 myths I hear about education. It's too easy to paint with a wide brush, so I've tried to be fair in each assessment of the myth.

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1. More Homework = More Practice

More homework does not necessarily mean more learning. This is something that perplexes a lot of people and mostly comes from having their child do hours upon hours of homework each night. In case you're wondering, I vehemently disagree with assigning that much homework. The purpose of homework should be to practice what has already been learned in the classroom. Sometimes, this means that students haven't mastered the material and just need to work at a skill, whether it's rote or uses higher level thinking. Students should never be given homework on something that hasn't been introduced in the classroom. Both parents and teachers need a great understanding of this. When children are frustrated by the work, talk to the teacher about this. Some form of modification should be in order.

2. Teacher Prep Doesn't Matter

My own teacher preparation fell woefully short on dealing with student behavior, but that was over 25 years ago. Since then, education preparation has dramatically improved and many student teachers learn under master teachers for a semester or a full year before they graduate from their teacher preparation programs. People are under the delusion that "anyone can teach" and that is a myth. There is a science to instructing students and managing classrooms that many non-teachers don't understand. If you think teaching a child to read is easy, then I point you toward this article from the American Federation of Teachers titled "Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science."

3. Class Size Doesn't Matter

My own school district has been in a referendum battle for as long as I've been a community member and, like many districts in the U.S., we have had budget cuts that remove teacher resources. That usually comes after getting rid of classes that are extremely important courses for non-traditional students (a whole other essay). A common myth is that class size doesn't matter because teachers should be able to manage 40 students in a classroom. That is simply NOT true when you consider that they are already juggling the educational and behavioral needs of a group of students. If that were the case, the average family size would increase dramatically because, hey, IT IS SO EASY. I point you toward the non-profit group Class Size Matters for more information about the proven benefits of smaller classes.

4. Teachers Are SOLELY Responsible for Student Learning

Good educators understand that student achievement is affected by experiences from home and parental influence. I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird when Scout gets in trouble because Atticus has taught her to "read all wrong" and thinking that it was so important that her learning began at home. The same is true for today's students and their care and teaching at home during the early years is CRUCIAL to how they perform in school. Parents have just as much agency to help their child learn as teachers do. It makes me cringe when people suggest that they're glad their kids are in school so now they can learn. It doesn't really work that way and it surprises me how often that myth comes up in education discussions. Early learning is important, but parents are just as important during the school years as teachers are for teaching new skills.

5. Unions Protect Bad Teachers

The union-hating film Waiting for Superman (backed by monies from people who want to change the narrative of public education to reflect the conservative "education reform" groups) only fueled the fire heating up the myth that unions protect ineffective teachers.

In my own experience of 20 years, I have seen the poor performance of teachers unwilling to change be counseled out of teaching. However, I know that many people don't understand what else unions do for teachers: they ensure the class size is manageable as well as the teacher workload, they ensure good working conditions, and they make certain that teachers have, at their disposal, curriculum and books with which they may teach.

Unions don't have the job of protecting "bad" teachers, they just protect teachers. Sometimes, ineffective teachers can hide within the system, but with diligence they can be removed. We shouldn't be able to fire teachers over one parent's grievance. If a teacher is poor, the administration's job is to work with him or her to become better at the craft of teaching. But the myth that unions simply protect people who are harming children is patently untrue.

6. Kids in Poverty Can't Learn

I'm not sure why this particular myth keeps circling back around, but it seems to be used as the impetus for convincing the public to approve budget cuts in education. While it's true that it makes the classroom experience more difficult (it's hard to learn when you don't have enough healthy food in your body), that doesn't mean that children living in poverty cannot learn. There are very specific ways that teachers respond to this, but it's not a good excuse as to why we shouldn't put funding in schools.

Yearly NCLB reports suggest that Adequate Yearly Progress isn't happening at the rates we'd like, but that learning IS happening in schools and in classrooms, even those filled with kids in poverty. Be wary when you hear this myth as it's a dog whistle for other conversations. Most importantly, when talking about poverty we should be having the conversation around communities and jobs and ensuring people are making living wages. (I'm looking at you and your Thanksgiving food drive for your workers, Wal-Mart.)

7. Schools Are the Only Ones Who Can Close the Achievement Gap

Again, this goes back to the dog whistles of so-called education reform motives. Let's begin with this: there is no achievement gap in schools. It's an equity gap that encompasses the wealth disparities, corporate welfare, and living wage discussions. Yet, it's easy to point fingers at education systems and shout that they have to work on the achievement gap. Well, to the extent to which we educate children each day, yes. But the way this vernacular is used isn't helpful in the national conversation about schools.

Take a look at what Chicago and Philadelphia did recently in their massive school closings. They hit communities who didn't need those hard hits and made education just out of reach. (Ahem. I'm looking at you, Mayor Emanuel.) Achievement gaps exists because wealth gaps and healthcare gaps and inequity gaps exist for the parents of the students we're teaching. If we want to address the achievement gap, we have to address all of these issues.

-By Kelly Wickham

For 3 more of the most infuriating myths about U.S. education system, visit Babble!

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