Shattering Education Myths

Dr. Dean Chavers
March 24, 2013

In a controversial book called Education Myths: What Special Interest Groups Want You to Believe About Our Schools—And Why It Isn't So published in 2005 by Rowman & Littlefield, Jay P. Greene took on the whole education establishment, from administration to the unions. Every teacher, administrator, school board member, and graduate student in education needs to read it. He got blasted, but people could not refute the truth of what he told. I just read the book last month; I wish I had heard about it when it came out.

He refuted the 18 most common education myths—with documented proof. The myths have major ramifications for Indian schools. It’s amazing how we believe these things, even though they are not true. They were:

  1. Schools perform poorly because they need more money.
  2. Special education programs burden public schools, hindering their academic performance.
  3. Social problems like poverty cause students to fail; schools are helpless to prevent it.
  4. Schools should reduce class sizes; small classes would produce big improvements.
  5. Certified or more experienced teachers are substantially more effective.
  6. Teachers are badly underpaid.
  7. Schools are performing much worse than they used to.
  8. Nearly all students graduate from high school.
  9. Nonacademic barriers prevent a lot of minority students from attending college.
  10. The results of high-stakes tests are not credible because they’re distorted by cheating and teaching to the test.
  11. Exit exams cause more students to drop out of high school.
  12. Accountability systems impose large financial burdens on schools.
  13. The evidence on the effectiveness of vouchers is mixed and inconclusive.
  14. Private schools have higher test scores because they have more money and recruit high-performing students while expelling low-performing students.
  15. School choice harms public schools.
  16. Private schools won’t serve disabled students.
  17. Private schools are less effective at promoting tolerance and civic participation.
  18. Private schools are more racially segregated than public schools.

Half a dozen of these myths are directly applicable to Indian schools, meaning Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, contract schools, schools on or near reservations, and public schools off reservation with large Indian enrollments. The last category includes Oklahoma City, Seattle, San Francisco, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Diego, Tucson, Gallup, Rapid City, the Twin Cities, and Chicago.

I recently got an appeal from a group, I think in Washington, D.C., which was asking for more money for Indian schools. As Greene proved, Indian schools already have adequate money. In fact, they have one-third more money than private schools. But private schools beat public schools in the academic race, even with less money. Their academic outcomes are much higher than public schools—even with less money.

Greene does not point this out, but with half the private school students being Catholic, they get by because they pay nuns and brothers less money than public school teachers. But these underpaid teachers demand and get homework, challenging academics, discipline, and order in the classrooms.

In the 39 Exemplary Programs in Indian Education we have identified since 1988, discipline and challenge have ruled the day. They are not content with hoping students show up for school; if students are not there in the mornings, they go get them. They make sure students go to class, pay attention, work hard, and have a challenging curriculum.

The overpaid teachers in Indian schools, in contrast, cannot be found at school before the bell rings. Ten minutes after school is out, they are all gone. Don’t believe me? Go to an Indian school at 4 p.m. and try to find a teacher. I dare you.

Colleges are yelled at because they don’t have enough minority students. In fact, over 75 percent of the colleges in the nation have no Indian students at all. Not their fault, Greene says. They actually admit more minority students than the data says are qualified. I think, with no proof yet, that colleges admit more unqualified Indian students than they do for other ethnic groups. Is it any wonder that 80 percent of Indian college students drop out? They can’t read, write, or do math.

When I was a senior at Berkeley, Jo Allyn Archambault recruited 33 new Indian students for the winter quarter in 1970. They were mostly from Oklahoma and the upper Midwest, and had graduated from a reservation high school, and then moved to the Bay Area to find work.

The university required them to take a test to determine if they would be placed in regular classes or remedial classes. Out of the 33, some 27 scored too low to go into remedial classes. The university had to develop some pre-remedial classes for them. Only three or four of them ever graduated.

The real problem, Greene says, is that the high schools are not preparing the minority students for college. When he and Greg Forster did their own research, they found that under 25 percent of black and Latino students could pass the three “screens” they used—graduation from high school with a regular diploma, taking an academic curriculum in high school, and passing the National Assessment of Educational Progress at basic or higher level.

Only 32 percent of all students passed all three screens. But only 20 percent of black students and 16 percent of Hispanic students passed all three screens. Some 37 percent of white students passed all three screens. I suspect the percentage of Indian students who pass all three screens is less than 15 percent. Whose fault is this? It is obviously the high schools that are at fault.

The real test of Indian schools is not lack of money, or lack of anything else that is material. It is lack of leadership that holds our schools back. It also holds our Indian students back.

There are other problems, of course. Chief among them is something that few pay attention to—the high rate of turnover among teachers. It has been particularly frustrating to me as I have worked with schools over the past 35 years. It is not unusual for schools to have 35 percent or even 50 percent new teachers every year. If someone gets a good program going, whether in reading or math or science, if that person leaves, the program is likely to die.

Low teacher qualifications are also a major problem. Albuquerque, as one of the garden spots of the nation, draws people from all over the nation to its schools. So it can pick and choose to a large extent. But if someone can’t get hired in Albuquerque, she or he can almost certainly get hired at one of the Indian schools to the north, south, and west. The worst case I have seen was a teacher with a degree in sociology trying to teach chemistry. Naturally, it was a total flop.

In one of the surprises to me, Greene documented that teachers are paid more than accountants. The National Education Association and the other teacher unions have us all brainwashed into thinking teachers need more pay. And we have bought the myth. Almost no one checks the facts to find out what teachers really are paid. It’s time we did.

It’s true that we have many social problems in Indian country—drug abuse, domestic violence, alcoholism, broken homes, single parent families, welfare families—but it’s also true that some of my heroes—like Sig Boloz, Betty Ojaye, Gilbert Sombrero, Reid Riedlinger, Richard DeLorenzo, and Dr. Ben Chavis—have achieved great things in similar environments. When Reid became superintendent at Wellpinit in 1989, the dropout rate was running 70 percent. He cut it to zero within five years. The last year he was there, 1983, he had a zero dropout rate and all the students went on to college—100 percent of them. Betty Ojaye did the same thing at Navajo Prep the next year.

Ben made his school in Oakland the best in the state, period. Sig had his school at Ganado at the very top nationally for several years. Betty did the same at Navajo Prep, and continues to do so. Betty, in my opinion, is the best principal in the United States.

I hope we can find some more leadership for our schools; it’s what they need the most.

Dr. Chavers has won several awards from the State of Virginia, Stanford University, the City of Albuquerque, The College Board, the U. S. Air Force, and others. His next book is The American Indian Dropout. Contact him at [email protected]. He works for Catching the Dream, a national scholarship program for Native college students. CTD has produced 771 graduates.



Chief Lighting Technician's picture
Chief Lighting ...
Submitted by Chief Lighting ... on

I bet all of you did not know, Chief Lighting Technician was and always will be the most famous American Indian in the Hollywood movie industry. As a child I thought, "Wow, their he is again, in the credits. He sure does a lot of movies." But like this myth scattering book, its really not true either. Just more finger pointing. As a highly educated Navajo man, it was I, who decided, I was going to be someone to make myself proud. My parents never mentioned college, although my step-father went to college and never used his degree, that I know of. Math. Though, like my grandmother said, "some of us are sheep and some of us are sheep herders." One cannot exist without the other. These types of books and such, are just to keep the academic types busy and in some type of grant money. Nothing more. Stop writing such nonsense and go be of "service". Volunteer. Believe me, it does more to a person than any education or degree. I still see Chief Lightening Technician at the end of the movies and now I know. We are who we have been waiting for.

michael langford's picture
michael langford
Submitted by michael langford on

begging the question: If your intent is to create a *no excuses* kind of policy, will you continue to blame the teacher? because that's always the excuse. how about administrators and politicians take some responsibility for poor judgement and inept management? NO EXCUSES!!!!!

Ouk's picture
Submitted by Ouk on

Funny coincidence, I just fehisnid teaching the reaction on the whiteboard on your photo :-)For what it's worth, if one's interested in sciences, labs are irreplaceable. Learning how to make drugs that save lives is a very humbling experience.I hear you can take organic chemistry online...but without the most useful (lab) component. Personally, I enjoyed college. But then I found a group of friends who were not there for a 'college experience', but who thrived to expand their skills and knowledge to become the most useful people they can possibly be. My closest friends became doctors, special education teachers, and professors. It was wonderful to be friends with them and understand what their education and learning entailed.Good luck to Paige!