Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Mythology and the American System of Education

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Mythology and the American System of Education

Article excerpt

Mr. Berliner sets out to identify - and shatter - the myths that have caused the American people to lose confidence in their public schools.

What is wrong with the American public school system is that it runs on myths. As we all know, myths are functional. Thus the myths about the American public school system must be serving die purposes of some, though not necessarily all, citizens. But the myths about the American public schools may also be misleading the majority of the citizenry and undermining the American people's confidence in one of their most cherished institutions.

What is right about the American education system is that the myths are so far off the mark. Contrary to the prevailing opinion, the American public schools are remarkably good whenever and wherever they are provided with the human and economic resources to succeed.

Let us examine a baker's dozen of these myths about U.S. education and see if they hold up. As we challenge the myths about what is wrong with our schools, we may learn what is right about them.

Myth 1. Today's youth do not seem as smart as they used to be.

Fact: Since 1932 the mean I.Q. of white Americans aged 2 to 75 has rise about .3 points per year. Today's students actually average about 14 I.Q. points higher than their grandparents did and about seven points higher than their parents did on the well-established Wechsler or Stanford-Binet Intelligence Tests.[1] That is, as a group, today's school-age youths are, on average, scoring more than 30 percentile ranks higher than the group from which have emerged the recent leaders of government and industry. The data reveal, for example, that the number of students expected to have I.Q.s of 130 or more - a typical cutoff point for giftedness - is now about seven times greater than it was for the generation now retiring from its leadership positions throughout the nation and complaining about the poor performance of today's youth. In fact, the number of students with I.Q.s above 145 is now about 18 times greater than it was two generations ago. If the intelligence tests given throughout the U.S. are measuring any of the factors the general public includes in its definition of "smart," we are now smarter than we have ever been before.

Myth 2. Today's youths cannot think as well as they used to.

Fact: The increased scores on intelligence tests throughout the industrialized world have not been associated with those parts of the tests that call for general knowledge or for verbal or quantitative ability. We could assume performance in those areas to be positively affected by the increase in schooling that has occurred throughout the industrial world during the last two generations. Rather, it turns out that the major gains in performance on intelligence tests have been primarily in the areas of general problem-solving skills and the ability to handle abstract information of a decontextualized nature.[2] That is, the gains have been in the areas we generally label "thinking skills."

If we look at statistics on the Advanced Placement (AP) tests given to talented high school students every year, we find other evidence to bolster the claim that today's American youths are smarter than ever. In 1978, 90,000 high school students took the AP tests for college credit, while in 1990 that number had increased 255% to 324,000 students, who took a total of 481,000 different AP tests. Although the population taking these tests changed markedly over this time period, the mean score dropped only 11/100 of a point. Meanwhile, the percentage of Asians taking the AP tests tripled, the percentage of African-Americans taking the examinations doubled, and the percentage of Hispanics quadrupled.[3] Something that the public schools are doing is producing increasingly larger numbers of very smart students, for those tests are very difficult to pass.

Myth 3. University graduates are not as smart as they used to be and cannot think as well as they did in previous generations. …

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