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Education Myths: Misconceptions, and Mistakes

Did you hear about the two guys who missed their chemistry exam? They were doing quite well in the course; each had an A going into the final exam. They were so confident that, the night before, they went to a party and got drunk. They passed out, overslept, and missed the exam. Reflecting on their predicament, they conspired to lie to the professor. They told him that while driving to the exam, they got a flat tire and were stranded through no fault of their own. The professor yielded, agreeing to give them a makeup exam the next morning. When they arrived, he put them in separate rooms. There was one question on the first page: “5 marks – Define molarity.” Each student thought, “Cool, this is going to be easy,” and wrote down the answer. Turning the page, they read the only other question on the exam: “95 marks – Which tire?”

Some myths are harmless, even humorous. Others are misleading, frustrating, and destructive. I have already described how technology can solve our problems in education. Before I discuss practical ways to initiate change, it is worth examining some previous attempts at education reform. Specifically, it is important to understand the myths and mistakes that have contributed to past failures. Only by exposing errant paths can we avoid traveling them again in the future.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

– George Santayana

In education, there are five types of myths: urban legends, frauds, misconceptions, pointless initiatives, and oscillations. Urban legends are fictional, albeit innocuous, stories that are capable of duping an unsuspecting public. Frauds, also based on fabrication, are purposeful misrepresentations that border on criminal conduct. Misconceptions, dull in comparison, are commonly held beliefs that are invalid. Pointless initiatives, more insidious than misconceptions, are baseless beliefs that are integrated into teaching. Finally, oscillations occur when educators move from one flawed extreme to another, and then back again over time.


Urban Legends

Discipline problems are escalating and out of control. At least that was the claim made by a widely circulated email in the 1990s. According to one version:

In the 1940s, a survey listed the top seven discipline problems in public schools: talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls, getting out of turn in line, wearing improper clothes, not putting paper in wastebaskets. A 1990s survey lists these top seven: drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery, assault.

These dramatic findings were cited in articles and speeches by George Will, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Landers, CBS News, Time magazine, Harvard president Derek Bok, Senator John Glenn, Secretary of Education William Bennett, and others. These surveys were a damning indictment of modern society. Or at least they would have been, had they been real.

In 1994, Barry O’Neill exposed this urban legend in his New York Times article, “The History of a Hoax”. It turns out there was no survey in 1940 or 1990. They were fabricated by one man – T. Cullen Davis, a born-again Christian fundamentalist – to support his contention that schools were contributing to the moral decay of society. When asked to comment on the lists, Davis admitted, “They weren’t done from a scientific survey.” He said, “How did I know what the offenses in the schools were in 1940? I was there. How do I know what they are now? I read the newspapers.”

Urban legends are fascinating. You can find hundreds of them listed at Apparently, students are not automatically granted perfect grades when a roommate commits suicide, there are no organ thieves on campuses, and there never was an objectionable little boy named Teddy Stoddard whose life was turned around by his fifth-grade teacher after she realized she was being too judgmental. On the other hand, some inspiring stories are true. A student really did solve an “unsolvable” equation in statistics after coming to class late and thinking the problem on the board was homework. And a math teacher, during a difficult Friday class, really did ask her students to write down “the nicest thing they could say about each of their classmates”, which when compiled and returned to students had a profound and lasting effect on many lives.

Although urban legends offer an interesting diversion, they are of little practical value since the problems they describe are not authentic. There are plenty of real problems to solve, and plenty of failed solutions to expose.



In the same year that “The History of a Hoax” was published, Roderick Paige became superintendent of Houston schools. During his tenure from 1994 to 2000, Paige introduced an accountability policy. Principals were placed on one-year contracts and either given financial bonuses or demoted based on student performance – as measured by dropout rates and test scores. Consequently, dropout rates plummeted and test scores skyrocketed. At Austin High School, the official dropout rate fell from 14.4% to 0.3%. The percentage of tenth-grade students who passed the Texas math test rose from 26% to 99%. Other schools in the district experienced similar accomplishments.

Paige was praised for the success of Houston schools. In 2001, he was appointed Secretary of Education by President George Bush (who had served as Texas Governor during Paige’s tenure). Bush used the dramatic turnabout in Houston as the model for his No Child Left Behind Act. In 2002, Houston received the first $1,000,000 Broad Foundation prize for the best urban school district in the United States. The “Texas Miracle” offered proof that holding educators responsible leads to improvements. Or at least it would have, had it been real.

The dramatic decline in dropout rates was the result of falsified data and misleading withdrawal coding. Rather than coding students as dropouts, they were incorrectly coded as transferred or pursuing GEDs. In 2001, 27% of Sharpstown High School students left without graduating, yet the official number of dropouts was 0%. (Coincidently, principals with dropout rates below 0.5% received financial bonuses of up to $10,000.) A state audit revealed that most students who left should have been coded as dropouts. State officials now concede that Sharpstown numbers were purposely falsified.

Improvements in test scores were also fictitious. While scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills increased, SAT scores were basically unchanged. Was this a case of a statewide test getting easier over time to inflate scores and make administrators look good? No, in Houston, a different mechanism was at work. According to Robert Kimball, the former Sharpstown assistant principal who helped expose the Texas Miracle fraud, “The secret of doing well in the tenth-grade tests is not to let the problem kids get to the tenth grade.” In 2001, Austin High School had 1,160 ninth-grade students but only 281 tenth-grade students. Students were held back for failing one course. Some were even forced to repeat courses they had already passed. Students eluded a tenth-grade classification altogether by being coded in ninth grade for two years and then in eleventh grade for their third year. Also, the number of students classified in special education doubled, preventing these scores from counting toward school accountability ratings. Only by removing weaker students from eligibility were scores able to rise.

next: The Path to Better Schools


This is an excerpt from Chalkbored. Order the book here to learn more about ...

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