Myth Buster

Published January 1, 2006

Review of Education Myths: What Special-Interest Groups Want You to Believe and Why It Isn’t So
Written by Jay P. Greene
(Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005)
265 pages, $24.95, ISBN 0742549771

Schools perform poorly because they need more money; teachers are underpaid; schools are performing much worse in standardized testing and graduation rates; accountability systems impose large burdens on schools; the evidence for vouchers is inconclusive. To all these popular assertions, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Jay P. Greene, Ph.D. offers readers evidence to the contrary in his first book, Education Myths: What Special-Interest Groups Want You to Believe and Why It Isn’t So.

Greene has a history of casting a skeptical eye on special-interest groups’ assertions, thoroughly conducting his own research, and drawing conclusions based in economic theory.

His research on education policy was cited four times before the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case, which found school vouchers constitutional. He draws on that experience to create an easy-to-read book useful to policymakers debating such legislation.

Education Spending

Greene recognizes the relationship between spending and student performance, noting, “if we reduced school spending to zero, that would definitely have an impact on student outcomes.” But he warns, “poor [student] performance alone tells us nothing about whether spending levels are contributing to the problem.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, per-pupil expenditures in U.S. public schools increased eightfold since the end of World War II. While no consistently reliable achievement data existed until the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) was introduced in the early 1970s, those scores have remained mostly unchanged in the past 30 years, despite dramatic increases in education spending.

Teacher compensation is closely related to education spending. People are apt to agree when they hear unions claim teachers are significantly underpaid, because it is easy to believe a national teacher union speaks honestly on behalf of teachers.

Greene, however, reports what unions do not like to admit: “One reason for the prominence of the Teacher Pay Myth is that people often fail to account for the relatively low number of hours teachers work.” Keeping in mind teachers work only nine months of the year, and after closely researching U.S. Department of Labor reports, Greene concludes, “teachers are actually better paid than accountants.”

Class Size

The National Education Association (NEA) supports limiting classes to 15 or fewer students, based on an experiment conducted in the 1980s in which students from kindergarten to third grade were randomly assigned to one of three types of classes: about 25 students with one teacher; 25 students with a teacher and an aide; or 15 students and one teacher. The study found students in the small classes had slightly better test scores, and 3 percent more of them took the SAT or ACT than their peers in larger classes.

However, Greene notes, the test-score improvement was a one-time benefit, meaning “students who had been in smaller classes for four years were no further ahead of their peers in regular-sized classes than they had been after only one year of smaller classes.”

Harvard University professor Caroline Hoxby calculates the cost of a 10 percent class-size reduction to be $615 per student. To reduce classes to 15 students, they would have to shrink 37.5 percent–at a cost of $2,306. Greene concludes, “even if all the claims made to promote the Class Size Myth were right, improving student performance by reducing class sizes is a little bit like driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco by way of Pittsburgh.”

Graduation Rates

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports the official U.S. graduation completion rate at 86.5 percent, but independent measures indicate it’s closer to 70 percent. Because the general public recognizes the importance of a traditional high school diploma, Greene says government agencies might have a vested interest in claiming nearly all students attending public high schools graduate.

To test the theory, Greene developed his own method of calculating graduation rates, taking the enrollment figures each state reports to the U.S. Department of Education, then estimating the number of students who should have graduated in a given year if none dropped out. Using that method, he calculates the 2000 national graduation rate at 69 percent, not the 86.5 percent reported by the NCES.

More alarming still, Greene’s method shows only 51 percent of black students and 52 percent of Hispanic students graduated with regular diplomas in 2001, Greene writes.


State and federal education reforms of the past two decades have focused on accountability. Overwhelmingly, parents and taxpayers want to be assured students are learning basic skills needed to enter the workforce. Unfortunately, nationally recognized accountability measures, such as the NAEP, SAT, and ACT exams, show students have made negligible gains, if any, over the past 30 years, Green notes.

Greene explores unions’ claims that accountability measures force teachers to “teach to the test,” which they say are too costly to purchase, administer, and evaluate. Unions also claim the tests cause students undue stress, leading to higher dropout rates. Greene cites research countering the analyses the unions often use to support such claims, which found they did not follow basic principles of social science, including having no controls to the data set and arbitrarily excluding some states from their samples.

When using sound research methods, Green demonstrates, the same data sets show states with high-stakes testing made greater gains on the NAEP than those without.

School Choice

The establishment media report school choice has no discernible effect on participating students and their respective school districts. School choice opponents claim the best students are drained from the public schools, vouchers increase racial tensions, and private schools do not adequately serve disabled students. Greene spends six chapters shredding these myths with scientific research, concluding, the “highest quality research consistently shows that vouchers have positive effects for students who receive them. The results are only mixed with regard to the scope and magnitude of vouchers’ benefits.”

For example, Florida’s A-Plus program uses rigorous accountability to employ a competitive, successful voucher program, Greene notes. If a public school receives two failing grades in a four-year period, the state offers its students vouchers to attend another public school or a private school of the parent’s choice.

Greene’s research shows schools whose students had the voucher option made year-to-year gains on the Stanford-9 test that were 5.9 percentile points greater than schools not threatened by vouchers. Even where schools were facing only the prospect of vouchers, students experienced an average 3.5 percentile point gain in math and a 1.7 percentile point gain in reading on the Stanford-9, Greene found.

Citing eight random-assignment studies of five school choice programs, Greene notes they all found “at least some positive academic effects for students using a voucher to attend a private school. In seven of the eight studies the benefits for voucher recipients are statistically significant,” Greene writes. He finds school choice students score at least as well, if not better, on standardized tests than their public school counterparts–for about half the cost.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the average private school tuition was $4,689 per student for the 1999-2000 school year, while the nation’s average per-pupil expenditure was $8,032.

Lori Drummer ([email protected]) is director of the American Legislative Exchange Council’ Education Task Force. This article is excerpted with permission from the Winter 2005 ALEC Policy Forum.