Education Myth-Busting in the Age of Fake News

“You Can’t Fire the Bad Ones!”: And 18 Other Myths About Teachers, Teachers Unions, and Public Education
by William Ayers, Crystal Laura, and Rick Ayers
Beacon Press, 2018, $16.00; 250 pages

As reviewed by Jay P. Greene

Having written a “myths” book myself, I am keenly aware of the danger inherent in the exercise—after all, how can readers really know what the evidence supports? In the past, appeals to authority, such as scholarly articles, reputable newspapers, and expert standing, were enough to convince readers that evidence on one side of an argument was credible, but in the age of “fake news,” authority has lost much of its potency. Writers can now assert that ideas they oppose are “myths,” and readers are left disoriented about what to believe.

This problem came to mind as I read “You Can’t Fire the Bad Ones!” by William Ayers, Crystal Laura, and Rick Ayers, which seeks to debunk 19 “myths about teachers, teachers unions, and public education.” How are lay readers supposed to know if these “myths” are widely believed in the first place—or if the evidence subsequently used to debunk them is credible?

Readers might note that the authors present little conventional scholarly evidence. The book has 261 endnotes, some of which reference more than one source, but by my count, only nine are peer-reviewed journal articles. The authors rely mainly on newspaper articles to make their arguments, with a smattering of books and advocacy-group reports thrown in. If scholarship still helps you separate fact from fiction, then this book will probably not convince you.

Lay readers may not be able to detect it, but the limited social-science evidence the authors do present is often inaccurate or misleading. For example, to debunk the claim that teachers unions are counterproductive, the authors note that “right-to-work states,” where unions do not engage in collective bargaining, tend to have lower standardized test results. As any trained researcher would recognize, the relationship between a lack of collective bargaining and lower standardized test results is not necessarily causal. States with certain characteristics, like being poor, might restrict collective bargaining to keep public spending low and suffer from lower student achievement. When researchers use techniques to isolate causation, they tend to find the opposite: that unionization detracts from educational success.

Similarly, in a chapter on school choice, Ayers, Laura, and Ayers assert that “by whatever measure, [school choice programs] don’t improve student experience or student outcomes.” To support this, they say: “An independent evaluation by Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas found no improvement for students participating in the Milwaukee or Washington, D.C., voucher programs.” In fact, this was not what Wolf and his colleagues found. Their studies showed that students in the D.C. and Milwaukee voucher programs experienced greater test score gains and higher graduation rates. The authors manage to claim the opposite by citing a blog post by Diane Ravitch, which misinterprets Wolf’s findings, instead of citing the research itself.

When the authors aren’t misrepresenting the evidence, they’re debunking straw men. One “myth” is inelegantly phrased as: “While Teachers and Their Unions Use Poverty as a Convenient Smokescreen for Their Own Failures, It’s Become Obvious That Grit and Merit Can Overcome Every Disadvantage.” Does any serious person really argue that grit and merit can overcome every disadvantage? Eva Moskowitz and Newt Gingrich are the only people quoted in an attempt to establish that this myth is widely believed, but neither says anything resembling it. Other myths, like “Anyone Can Be a Teacher” or “Teachers Are Poorly Served by the Universally Dreadful Teacher-Education Programs Currently Available” are similarly overdrawn, making their subsequent debunkings unpersuasive.

Many of the myths blur together, until eventually it seems like the authors are debunking the same myth over and over. For example, four of the first five myths seem like different ways of saying that teachers unions are bad for school quality: “Teacher Unions Are the Biggest Obstacle to Improving Education Today,” “You Can’t Fire the Bad Ones,” “Teachers’ Unions Represent a Flock of ‘Go Slow/Status Quo’ Sheep,” and “Teachers Have it Easy.”

Each myth is set up at the beginning of the chapter and then subjected to a “Reality Check,” but the set-ups from one chapter to the next are not always distinct. The effort the authors put into these set-ups also seems to decline as the book progresses, and several of the later chapters never establish that people actually believe the myth is true. In three of the 19 chapters, the authors cite California Governor Pete Wilson, who hasn’t served in office for almost two decades. The opening myth that teachers unions are the biggest obstacle, however, is the best developed and is set up in part by quoting former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who called the National Education Association a “terrorist organization.” Given that William Ayers probably knows a thing or two about terrorist organizations, this part feels particularly credible.

Rather than adjudicating facts or empirical claims, this book is instead an argument for a certain worldview and the education policies that would flow from it. I have no problem with people articulating their worldview and making a case for it, but the “myths” approach is inappropriate for doing so. While Ayers, Laura, and Ayers try to frame their ideas as facts standing in opposition to pervasive and detrimental fictions, in reality, they’re arguing over differences in values and opinions. For example, they dismiss the legitimacy of billionaire-backed reforms because “the only reason the superrich have these massive billions, and hence a major voice in policy, is because of unfair tax laws that allow them to keep the vast wealth their employees have created.” If you don’t already subscribe to Marx’s labor theory of value, then you won’t agree with this claim—and you won’t find much else of value in this book, either.

Jay P. Greene is Distinguished Professor of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas

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