Steve Nelson: A Big Lie is Breaking Education
In an excerpt from his book First Do No Harm, Steve Nelson explains one of the big lies behind decades of education reform efforts, starting with A Nation At Risk.
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.
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!
Nelson explains that this is what has been happening in our country on, obviously, a much larger scale.
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.