Worlds of Education

When myths of education become reality

published 24 May 2016 updated 24 May 2016

By Stephen Dinham, University of Melbourne, Australia.

Just over 20 years ago David Berliner and Bruce Biddle published The Manufactured Crisis - Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools. In this they cited the ‘sweeping claims attacking the conduct and achievement of America’s public schools - claims that were contradicted by evidence we knew about’ (Berliner & Biddle, 1995: xi). These views emanated from the Reagan administration and the publication of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (The National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983), but many would trace its roots back to the 1930s, under the guise of neo-liberalism.

If anything, the attacks on America's public schools have intensified and have been mirrored on the other side of the Atlantic and in other nations that tend to follow the leads of the US and the UK, such as Australia. Despite attempts to provide counter-argument, what appears to be a widespread movement to denigrate and dismantle public education is gaining momentum, something I have likened to a tsunami, in that these ‘long wave’ changes are almost imperceptible until such time as they break upon the shore, at which point it is too late to do anything about them.

More recently Berliner, Glass and Associates produced a successor to the Berliner and Biddle publication entitled 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools – The Real Crisis in Education (2014).  In the interim between the two works the influence of student testing has grown significantly and a plethora of vested interests has moved into the education space for ideological, political and financial reasons. Over three decades later the myths identified by Berliner, Biddle and subsequent writers have assumed the status of ‘facts’ in the eyes of many (Sahlberg, 2014), with additional myths/’facts’ added to the mix in a continuous, cumulative fashion, thereby adding to the strength and acceptance of the movement which, as will be seen, is thus self-fulfilling, with myth becoming reality.

With these developments, educational research and other evidence has been distorted, discounted or disregarded in favour of deregulation, privatisation, corporatisation and quick fix solutions to the supposed problems of teaching and the ‘crisis’ in schooling.  Educators have been either silent or silenced in debates and discussions about education (Dinham, 2013a).

What are the supposed problems with education and the proposed solutions?

The myths, ‘facts’ or beliefs underpinning the ‘crisis’ in education in the US, the UK, Australia and elsewhere are many but are typified in the following (after AACTE, 2012; Benn, 2012; Berliner et al., 2014; Brill, 2011; Christodoulou, 2014; Dinham, 2013a; Hopkins, 2013; Ravitch, 2010, 2013; Lubienski & Lubienski, 2013):

  1. Public education is failing
  2. International testing is a true barometer of the decline in public schooling
  3. Private schools are better than public schools
  4. Government funded independent and for-profit schools are better than private schools
  5. Greater autonomy for public schools will lift performance [yet]
  6. Greater accountability will lift public school performance
  7. Money is not the answer - increased spending on public education has not resulted in improvement in student achievement
  8. The teacher is the biggest influence on and is therefore responsible for student achievement
  9. Merit pay/payment by results is the solution to improving teacher quality
  10. Removing tenure and dismissing poor teachers will lead to greater student achievement
  11. Schools should be resourced on the basis of results
  12. The curriculum is a captive of the ‘left’
  13. Schools are not producing the skills and capabilities required by industry
  14. 21st century skills are not being taught in 21st century schools
  15. Technology changes everything
  16. Teacher education is ineffective and the value of a teaching credential is questionable
  17. The effects of poverty are too difficult to overcome
  18. Educational research offers no solutions
  19. Non-educators should lead (public) schools
  20. Choice, competition, privatisation and the free market are the answers to almost any question about education.

Each of the above has been found to be either unconfirmed or disproved by research evidence (see references above) but that has not stopped people, vested interests and organisations from advocating for them.  In fact, quite the opposite seems to have occurred, with responses to such measures contributing to further falls in public confidence, leading to pressure for more extreme change, i.e., throwing more fuel on the fire.

The great propagandists of history such as Joseph Goebbels have known that if a lie can be said often enough and repeated by sufficient people, it can come to be seen as ‘fact’.

Together these myths and beliefs about education have found expression in a number of powerful, related phenomena centred upon mechanisms for alternative school establishment and funding, teacher quality, school governance and leadership, and school accountability.

In particular, the misinformed claims and myths about public education  have led to something of a crisis and a fall in standards, as teachers, schools, confidence, trust and beliefs have been battered and shattered, as parents have been convinced to send their children to ‘better’ schools and as schools have been punished for under performance.

However the bottom line remains true: a good public education system is good for everyone and is the best means we have of overcoming the effects of disadvantage and of opening the doors of opportunity for young people.


– for original references see:

Dinham, S.  (2015). ‘The Worst of Both Worlds: How US and UK models are Influencing Education in Australia’, Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 23(49), pp. 1-20. http://dx.doi.org/10.14507/epaa.v23.1865.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.