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Steve Nelson: The Big Lie and Education Reform

Sunday, February 07, 2016
What major event changed the course of recent history and was based entirely on a falsehood? The obvious answer is the Iraq war. Hundreds of thousands of lives and several trillion dollars have been squandered. All of this tragic waste was triggered by false claims of weapons of mass destruction, a lie that was too easily swallowed in the hunger for revenge following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

But there is another ongoing debacle that was also inspired by a falsehood. This disaster is education reform. While the costs are not as acutely tragic, the long-term ramifications are deeply troubling.

It all started 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 America’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 2016 is based on the same big lie in new clothing. It has been a 33-year war on public education, on teachers and on teachers unions. While most informed citizens are now aware that the Iraq war was inspired by deception, it seems all of America believes that our schools are bad and that education reform is a critical need.

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. They were lower. But it didn’t mean what the report concluded.

The 1990 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 single subgroup (by class, race and every other variable) of American students had gone up! How can that be? Enter Simpson’s Paradox, a fascinating 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 actually improved significantly.

This is essentially what happened in America. 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 same thing is true in 2016. Politicians and reformers cite poor results on tests, particularly the so-called gold standard, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). In both cases, a Simpson’s Paradox examination reveals that each subgroup of students in America is doing slightly better than before. We just have more poverty and income inequality, so the subgroups have continued to shift in size, as in the illustration above.

The costs of this lie are enormous too. The ill-considered No Child Left Behind law left schools and children in test-stress tatters. Billions 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 directed to for-profit schools, religious storefront schools and incompetent online programs. Cities, most vividly New Orleans, have turned the education of their children over to unaccountable charter operators. 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.

I’m not suggesting that everything is dandy with American education. But the problem is not what we’ve been told and the solution is not what we’ve been doing.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school. He can be reached at

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