In education, the old standards worked better than the new

John Rosemond

John Rosemond

As with nearly every public policy topic these days, myths abound, but few mythologies rival that surrounding public education. Some examples:

Myth: Smaller classrooms promote better learning.

Fact: The teacher-pupil ratio has little to do with student achievement, as demonstrated in the 1950s when elementary classrooms were bursting at the seams (nearly three times as many students per teacher than now) and student achievement was significantly higher than it has been since. This canard is promoted by teachers unions, administrators, and politicians on both sides of the aisle who seek to curry favor with the unions and administrators. The unassailable fact is that student achievement has declined as classroom behavior problems have risen and teachers have been increasingly hamstrung — by unsupportive administrators, politicians and the courts — when it comes to discipline. It's student behavior, folks, not class size.

Myth: More money would improve student achievement.

Fact: As a category, Catholic schools have the best record when it comes to student achievement, including students who represent the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. With rare exceptions, Catholic schools spend considerably less per student than do public schools. Classroom discipline in most Catholic schools is head-and-shoulders above the ever-deteriorating situation in most public schools, but equally important is that Catholic schools do not suffer administrative bloat. Unlike the case in most public school districts, one does not find multiple assistant superintendents of this and that in Catholic systems.

Myth: Encouraging parents to oversee and help with homework positively impacts student achievement.

Fact: Wrong again. A 2014 study found an inverse relationship between homework help from parents and school achievement, regardless of any demographic characteristic or even a child's ability level. The fact is that homework enabling — a much more accurate descriptor than "homework help" — is like any other form of enabling. It has a decidedly negative impact on personal responsibility and, therefore, a negative impact on student achievement. Referencing the 1950s again (which drives my perennial detractors up the proverbial wall), it was the rare parent who rendered anything more than occasional help with homework. Thus, children had higher levels of personal responsibility, and student achievement was significantly higher.

Myth: Social science research has been a boon to public education.

Fact: Since the late 1960s, public school educators and policymakers have embraced the progressive notion that new ideas are better than old ideas. The new ideas in question have been supported by social science researchers (who will support just about anything one wants it to support), yet none of the new ideas — open classrooms, outcome-based education, collaborative learning, to cite a few) — have panned out. Today as yesterday, the most successful schools are those that adhere to a traditional model.

Myth: Teaching academics before first grade (encouraged by both public and private schools) boosts overall achievement.

Fact: A growing number of educators and researchers are convinced that teaching academics before first grade increases the per capita incidence of learning disabilities and lowers achievement in the long run. As did most of my peers, I came to first grade not knowing my ABCs. Lest I needlessly repeat myself, the reader is encouraged to reread myths 1 through 4 above.