Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Lake Woebegone Effect

I have written about, what I call, the “Lake Woebegone” Effect (LWE). Lake Woebegone is the name of the mythical town, in Garrison Keillor’s weekly radio show, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” In my definition, LBE is when we, as parents, are not able to stand to know that our child isn’t above average. Of course this is impossible. From the meaning of average, for any criteria of a given population, 50% of the population falls below the average mark, and 50% of the population is above the average mark.

We regularly sing the praises of accomplished school athletes. We award them with trophies and ribbons. Everyone understands that if you can't play well enough, you don't make it onto the team. We all know that in any team that is truly competing, the best players play most often and the others sit on the bench. I watched many games where the top players on the team play most of the game and the others fill in when: There is an injury, when a player is tired, or when the team is so far ahead of the other team that it does not make a difference one way or the other. For a laugh see No Child Left Behind: The Football Version.

It is an entirely different mind set when it comes to our children in the classroom. Some may recall when C was the average grade. This is no longer true. Since we, as a culture, cannot stand for our children to be average, let alone below average, they must at least earn a B, if not an A. We, as a nation, believe that it is more important to pass a student to the next level than to retain a student because it would hurt his or her feelings, and therefore ours as parents, if the child were to fail.

We are graduating huge numbers of students from high school who are functionally illiterate and innumerate. The California High School Exit Exam only tests students at an 8th grade level in Math and English. It is our fault, when we don't stand up for excellency in schools. We protest when our own children fall below the C level. We blame it on the teachers, we complain to the administrators, and hence we have the LBE. The result is that our schools march toward mediocrity. And we don't understand why our nation's sophomores rank 24th of 29 developed nations.

Jacques Barzun, refers to the idea of LBE (but he didn’t call it that) in his 1991 book Begin Here: The forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning. He says that we that through our choices, as a nation, we have lost the “knack of… Teaching and Learning.”

“Take one familiar fact: everybody keeps calling for Excellence - excellence not just in schooling, throughout society. But as soon as somebody or something stands out as Excellent, the other shout goes up: ‘Elitism!’… ‘Standing out’ is undemocratic.”

In 1986, John Jacob Cannell, MD published, what later became known as, the “Lake Woebegone” Reports. Alas, it turns out that LBE wasn’t original. The doctor from West Virginia started wondering how the mostly poor students of his state could do so well on nationally standardized tests. In the first report he documented “all fifty states were testing above the national average in elementary achievement and concluded the testing infrastructure in America’s public schools was corrupt.” In the second report he, “delineated the systematic and pervasive ways that American educators cheat on standardized achievement tests.” Ouch!

I earned a teaching credential in 1993 and have never heard of either report even though both of his reports were “extensively discussed in academic journals, and helped spur the testing reform movement.” As a teacher, I was largely unaware that there was extensive cheating on the standardized tests, even though a number of years ago, when the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was introduced, spurred by George W. Bush, my brother in witty irony, sent me an article about the rampant cheating on standardized tests by educators and administrators in Texas. There is even a name for this type of cheating: Campbell’s Law – Who Knew?

Campbell’s Law basically says that the higher the stakes in testing, the more likely corruption occurs. Isn't it amazing that this was also never discussed in credential school, nor by any administrator I have known, and I have been teaching for 15 years?

In 2006, John Jacob Cannell published “‘Lake Woebegone”: Twenty Years Later” where he explains why he left the testing reform movement and goes into detail about the reason the NCLB testing is no different than what occurred with standardized testing twenty years ago. I highly recommend reading it.

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