By Laurie H. Rogers
In Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, “all of the women are strong, all of the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Keillor’s famous phrase encapsulates the cognitive bias known as “illusory superiority” – a fancy name for the natural tendency we all have to overstate our achievements and positive qualities as compared against others. Because Keillor articulated this bias so well, “illusory superiority” is often called the Lake Wobegon Effect.
The term popped into my head last week while reading various press releases and news articles about Spokane Public Schools. In Spokane, apparently there is no bad news, everyone is always doing better, scores are always going up, and management is always excellent.
(Sarcasm alert.) Administrators are especially remarkable when you consider the difficult job they have of working with the poor, the weak, the incapable, the unknowledgeable, the ungrateful, the uneducated, the stupid, the antagonistic, and the misguided. The consistent gist of their message is, “If only everybody else would carry THEIR weight, you’d see just how positively brilliant we are.” (End sarcasm.)
Hey, here's some fun with acronyms: Administrators in Spokane Public Schools are GNOMES, hindered (so they say) by IT, UP and US.
- GNOME: Good News Only; Management Excellent.
- IT: Ineffective Teachers
- UP: Uninvolved Parents
- US: Unmotivated Students
|Number of students||193||368||1093||1208|
|Number of exams||271||636||2028||2270|
|Number of course areas||13||15||27||27|
|Number of exams passed||198||515||1099||1251|
Spokane’s high ranking in the Washington Post survey is due to the higher number of AP exams. You can see that, numerically, more tests are being passed, but also that the percentage passing has dropped precipitously. Many more tests also are being failed. Administrators and board directors have brushed this failing off as being immaterial. It is not immaterial to the students who failed.
Additionally, the average grade on AP exams has dropped below a “3,” the point at which students can obtain college credit at state schools. (Gonzaga and Whitworth give credit for AP math classes only if students receive a score of “4” or “5” on the AP exam.)
It’s no surprise, therefore, that high school graduates are testing into remedial math in college. In 2009–2010, according to data from Spokane Community Colleges (SCC and SFCC):
- Of all recent high school graduates enrolling in these two colleges, 87.3 percent took remedial math classes. Most tested into elementary algebra or below.
- 43.9 percent of those 1,112 remedial students withdrew early from their remedial classes or failed to achieve a 2.0 or better. The rates hold true over five years.
- Of recent graduates from six high schools in Spokane Public Schools, the remediation rate at SCC and SFCC was 86.8%. Three SPS high schools had a math remediation rate at SCC of 100 percent; the other three ranged from 91.9% to 97% at SCC.
This index is based on “expectations,” not on an academic standard. If our expectation is zero, and the district achieves at a level of .0001, then it will achieve above 100 on the index.
And, whose expectations are these? My expectation is that Spokane Public Schools prepares the vast majority of its students academically for postsecondary life – for college, a career, a trade, to join the military, to begin a business … And the district is NOT meeting my expectation.
A Fall 2008 district survey of families who chose to leave the district showed that about 33% left over the curriculum. (Private schools were not included in the survey. Had they been, I suspect this percentage would be higher.) At any rate, top academically-related reasons chosen for leaving:
- 33%: Quality of curriculum does not match your expectations
- 26%: District class sizes too large
- 21%: Desired coursework is not offered in the district
- 19%: Student is not on schedule to graduate
“Our mission is to develop the skills and talents of all students through rigorous learning experiences, supportive relationships, and relevant real-life applications.” (Source: District brochure of "fast facts.")
The levy paid for administrative raises last year, but the people weren’t told that -- not as they were signing on to support the levy, nor afterward, when the levy money was spent in that way. When I asked the district how MUCH of the levy paid for administrative raises, I was told the district “doesn’t break it down that way.”
In this year’s district forums, the people weren’t given budget totals. As they heard the district whine about an alleged budget “cut” since 2002 – they didn’t know that the district budget has actually grown by $60 million since 2002, or that the levy has grown by $23 million since 2002. It’s been an incredibly large money shift, not a budget cut.
Folks, there’s a lot more data out there just like this, but this snippet gives you the gist of the way the district presents outcomes. My conclusion is that Spokane Public Schools does NOT suffer from the Lake Wobegon Effect. What Spokane Public Schools suffers from is ever so much worse than that.
Rogers, L. (July 2011). "The Lake Wobegon Effect? Or deceit by omission?" Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site: http://betrayed-whyeducationisfailing.blogspot.com/
This article also was published July 27, 2011, on the EducationNews Web site at: http://www.educationnews.org/ed_reports/159100.html