Book Review

June 1, 2015 Larry Booi

Academic stalwart systematically debunks many education myths

David Berliner has long been seen as one of the top educational researchers in the United States as well as one of its foremost defenders of public education, and deservedly so.

Ever since the publication of his 1996 award-winning book (with Bruce Biddle,) The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools, Berliner has been a source of helpful information, compelling insights and much-needed inspiration for teachers across North America and elsewhere, including Alberta where he has been brought in as a speaker by the Alberta Teachers’ Association on numerous occasions over the past two decades.

His most recent book, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, written with Gene V. Glass and 19 research associates, serves to update and extend his earlier efforts to use educational research to debunk the “myths, hoaxes and outright lies” that are systematically used to undermine public schooling in America. The book has received wide acclaim, and is very likely to become the “must-read” resource for defenders of public education regardless of where they live.

Indeed, despite obvious differences between Alberta’s and America’s education systems, there is an enormous (and depressing) resonance in the authors’ observations about most of the factors undermining public education in the United States when compared to Alberta. The circumstances and threats may be more developed and pernicious in the United States, but they tend to be differences in degree rather than in kind. Above all, the underlying intent is clearly the same in both places: to destroy confidence in public education and to create enormous opportunities for private profit through various forms of privatization of K–12 public education.

Berliner and Glass see the current struggle over public education as an epic one, and the forces that are pitted against each other are named in clear terms in the book’s preface.

“On one side are the forces of corporate America seeking to gain a share of the billions of dollars expended annually in support of K–12 education. Enlisted in their cause are the American Legislative Exchange Council, hundreds of conservative politicians, and a network of right-wing think tanks. On the opposing side stand thousands of academic scholars, scholars-in-training in our universities, and practicing teachers. We stand unapologetically with the latter groups.”

The authors state that the unrelenting push to undermine public education is “perpetuated in large part by political and economic interests that stand to gain from the destruction of the traditional system,” and is supported by myths, lies and hoaxes. Their book is a systematic attempt to use the best educational research to debunk 50 of these myths (with a promise to deal with more in their next publication.)

MONEY MATTERS

Particularly relevant to Alberta teachers, especially given recent and projected funding cutbacks and class size increases, is myth 17: “Class size does not matter; reducing class size will not result in more learning.” After a convincing review of the findings of extensive research on teacher workload, class size and learning, Berliner points to the continuing paradox of the right-wing position.

That is, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, fiscal conservatives contend that students learn as well in large classes as they do in small classes. Yet affluent families, “the very constituency whose taxes they are trying to reduce,” consistently opt for schools with small classes, often reporting class size as the reason for their choice.

“So, for which students are large classes OK? Only the children of the poor?” Berliner and Glass write.

Given the Alberta government’s most recent budget, featuring more cuts to education and other public services projected for several years to come, supposedly “without affecting the quality of children’s education,” it is also important to consider the refutation of myth 35: “Money doesn’t matter! We’re spending more money than ever, but test scores are stagnant.”

Part of the rationale for this myth flows from the ongoing effort to have schools emulate business practices, in order to get “more for less.” Even in the United States these simplistic nostrums of “let the magic of the market do its work” are beginning to lose their lustre, despite the support of billionaires such as Bill Gates. The authors’ review of the evidence about the effects of spending and investment in schools is quite clear in its conclusions that achievement outcomes are definitively higher in school districts that have sufficient resources compared to those that do not.

“Does it make a difference to hire more teachers so that class sizes can be reduced and kept low? Does it make a difference to provide social supports so that high-needs students can learn to the best of their ability? We know with a good deal of certainty that the answer to these questions is a resounding, ‘yes,’” he writes.

“Studies consistently show that more experienced teachers — who command higher salaries — are more effective. Studies also show consistently that higher salaries attract better candidates to the teaching profession, help keep them in the profession, and reduce teacher turnover rates in high-poverty schools.”

RAISING ALL BOATS

Berliner and Glass are again unequivocal on the related topic of the role of choice and competition, with their take on myth 7, that “School choice and competition work to improve all schools” or “raise all boats.”

It seems increasingly clear that the push for these directions is part of the same magic-bullet, market- solutions-are-always-best approach that is at its core ideological rather than educational, and based more in an almost religious-like faith rather than in evidence.

“Rather than offering all students better opportunities, vouchers and charter schools have used tax dollars to help some students while leaving many others even more segregated and disadvantaged. Our nation and our children need a well-funded public school system that provides equal support to all its schools. That is the tide that will really lift all ships.”

Alberta’s situation is in some ways unique, but in other important ways it is subject to the same pressures, problems and approaches as other jurisdictions around the globe, particularly those of America. Berliner and Glass offer compelling arguments for resisting educational directions based on myths that benefit wealthy and powerful corporate interests and undermine a crucial public institution, as well as providing powerful research evidence in support of strong public education for all, supported by wise policies and public funds. Their work should serve as an important source of support for the advocacy efforts of teachers and others who support strong public education in our province.

A former president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, Larry Booi is currently an adjunct professor and instructor in the faculty of education at the University of Alberta.

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