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A Big Lie is Breaking Education

A Big Lie is Breaking Education


(This long post is an edited excerpt from my 2016 book. I continue to be frustrated by the resistance to progressive -enlightened – education. I hope the excerpt will offer a helpful perspective to those who care about children and the increasingly dysfunctional system they must endure.)

Imagine if we still believed the Earth was flat or that the Sun orbited our planet. Based on these beliefs we might tinker endlessly with efforts to navigate our world or to understand all kinds of natural phenomena and then scratch our heads in dismay when nothing turned out quite as we had predicted.

The book from which this post is drawn may be perceived as radical, perhaps subversive, but contemporary education policy, especially so-called education reform, is as wrongheaded as believing that the Earth is flat.

It is widely believed that education in America is not going well. That belief is more propaganda than fact. The contemporary manifestation of that propaganda began with a 1983 report commissioned by the Reagan administration: A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.

This report claimed to provide evidence that a deteriorating educational system was undermining our nation’s vitality. It was a big lie, exposed by more honest work in subsequent years, particularly the Sandia Report commissioned in 1990. This subsequent work received little fanfare and nothing changed. Education reform in 2022 is based on the same big lie in new clothing. It has been a 39-year war on public education, on teachers and on teachers unions. How did this happen?

A Nation at Risk appeared to provide unassailable statistical proof that student achievement had dropped. The average scores the report cited were not fiction. Scores were indeed lower, at least by their calculations. But it didn’t mean what the report concluded.

The Sandia Report found seemingly contradictory facts: The average test scores of all American students had gone down, as A Nation at Risk claimed . . . but the average test scores of every sub-group (by class, race, and every other variable) of American students had gone up! How can that be? Enter Simpson’s Paradox, an interesting statistical phenomenon.

To illustrate:

10 students in subgroup A each scored 80 points

10 students in subgroup B each scored 60 points

10 students in subgroup C each scored 40 points

Average score = 60 (1,800 points divided by 30 students).

Change the subgroup size:

10 students in subgroup A each scored 85,

20 students in subgroup B each scored 65

30 students in subgroup C each scored 45

Average score = 58.3 (3,500 divided by 60 students).

The overall average dropped from 60 to 58.3 yet every student group actually improved significantly!

This is essentially what happened in the United States. Population growth and increased student enrollment in less privileged communities changed the relative sizes of groups by race and class. But the achievement of every group, including the poorest kids, went up.

The costs of this lie are enormous. The ill-considered No Child Left Behind law and its hideous offspring, Every Student Succeeds Act, left schools and children in test-stress tatters. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted on tests, test prep, Common Core and other medicine for a disease that has been misdiagnosed. America’s shameful problems are racism, poverty and inequality. Not education.

The emotionally appealing notion of school choice has dramatically increased inequity in education. Through vouchers, public dollars are being diverted to charter scams, for-profit schools, religious storefront schools and incompetent online programs.

Public schools are underfunded and teacher unions are under assault by opportunistic privatizers. Arts have been cut to the bone, there’s no time for recess and a dumbed-down drill and kill curriculum is soiling childhood. We are on the verge of losing, perhaps irretrievably, our nation’s historic commitment to an equal public education for all children.

And it’s all based on a lie.

Education reform, as proposed and financed by billionaire philanthropists and politicians, is clearly not the answer. In fact, education reform is exacerbating the very problems it claims to address. Eminent historian Diane Ravitch has expertly and thoroughly explicated the failures and perils of the charter school/privatization forces at work in her book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.

I write to make a broader and more radical argument: That traditional education has never worked well for all children. Never will and can’t, because the premises on which traditional educational policy is based are fundamentally flawed. Most of the success experienced by students in traditional schools, including many of the most celebrated schools, occurs despite their policies and practices, not because of them.

For kids who are intelligent in different ways, who develop more slowly, or who are sensitive or quirky, the educational system has been especially ineffective. Many such folks find their way outside of, or in spite of, school, but the system has always served them poorly.

Borrowing Howard Gardner’s phrase, “uniform” IQ- style education is adequate for some kids and horrid for many others.

So while education was not really in crisis, at least not more so than at other times, the fictional crisis manufactured by politicians and profiteers has, ironically, created an actual crisis. This is because the cure to the mythical disease is highly toxic. The worst aspects of a traditional approach to education are now on steroids. Constant testing, accountability, standards, economies of scale, Common Core, No Child Left Behind, ruthless teacher assessments, Race to the Top. Several decades of evidence that the medicine isn’t working have invited no reflection or introspection, just prescriptions for more and stronger medicine.

While admittedly trite, I find no better description of the current situation than “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” While in trite mode, I also invoke Einstein’s terse explanation of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

The central thesis of my book is that progressive education has always been essentially right and that traditional education has always been essentially wrong. I use the terms “progressive” and “traditional” as shorthand for very complex ideas, but the substance of the argument is clear.

Progressive education, in its current iteration, is the product of several centuries of constantly evolving knowledge of human development.

Traditional education is the obdurate product of political convenience, designed to distill the most able from the populace and train the rest for utility.

There are three broad facets of human development where traditional educational design and its implementation are fundamentally flawed:

Traditional education is designed on the assumption that all children can or should do the same things at the same time.

Traditional education is predicated on the assumption that extrinsic structures that reward and punish children, teachers and schools are the optimal motivational milieu.

Traditional education is based on the assumption that logical/mathematical and linguistic intelligence (IQ-style intelligence) are primary or sole qualities to be valued and developed in education

These three assumptions are simply wrong. The stakes are high, as the current iteration of traditional education is not only wrongheaded. It can be destructive- for the mind and for the heart.

If you would like carefully curated evidence for these claims, you can buy the book! Or, so my self-promotion is muted, I will send a PDF if requested.

Happy New Year!




Steve Nelson
Steve Nelson is a retired educator, author, and newspaper columnist. He and his wife Wendy moved to Erie from Manhattan in 2017 to be near family. He was a serious violinist and athlete until a catastrophic mountain bike accident in 2020. He now specializes in gratitude and kindness.

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