Muscle Cramps, Evidence, and the Public Education Reform Debate

For almost thirty years, I have been a serious recreational and competitive cyclist. Despite my goals as a cyclist focusing primarily on endurance events—such as English centuries (100 miles) over mountain courses (elevation gains of 10,000 feet and more) and single-day rides of 220+ miles—I have also been that entire time prone to muscle cramps.

Since cramping has often ruined my targeted events, and since when cramps occur (and don’t) has been impossible to predict or even explain, I have spent a great deal of my cycling career studying and experimenting with how to avoid muscle cramps during endurance events—especially in the summer months of my home in the South.

When I raise my cramping issue among the cycling community, I am always flooded with “I do X and so should you!” The X includes claims about hydration (plain water for some, this or that brand sports drink for another), electrolyte tablets and gels, mustard, pickle juice, and Tums.

What is profoundly interesting about these anecdotal responses are two really important facts: (1) As Joe Friel states, “Contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, no one knows what causes muscle cramps. [1] The common lore is that the culprit is electrolytes, but this is highly doubtful. Much of the sports nutrition industry, however, is based on this myth,” and (2) research calls into question the value of sports drinks.

A common pattern, in fact, is when I send out emails or post blogs stating that we do not know what causes muscle cramps, warning not to use any product for something different than its stated purpose (i.e. Tums), and emphasizing that muscle cramps appear unrelated to electrolyte levels, I am still flooded with emails about hydration (plain water for some, this or that brand sports drink for another), electrolyte tablets and gels, mustard, pickle juice, and Tums—followed with “It works for me!”

The example above about muscle cramps and endurance athletes is no different than the current public debate about education reform.

The general public is often compelled by claims that they already believe at the intuitive or personal experience level—a personal experience level that is quick to assign causation (in fact, humans are genetically predisposed to being cause/effect machines as a matter of survival).

As a result, “That’s how I learned in school” is far more influential to the public than carefully explained bodies of research.

Amanda Ripley, Paul Tough, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Malcolm Gladwell, David Brooks, and a wide array of public voices (not restricted to only one political ideology) find their common sense and normalized claims ring true with the general public. In fact, that is how they make their living.

Thus, while it isn’t surprising to me, it is frustrating that when I make an evidence-based case against Common Core, for example, almost all of the responses replicate my efforts to inform my cycling community about muscle cramps—the responses remain mired in the initial assumptions and claims with almost no regard for the evidence. [2]

In these days between Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth day and MLK Day 2014, I am considering that King offers a hard but successful example of how to present a complex and unpopular case that is both based in evidence and ultimately compelling despite conflicting with the common sense beliefs of the time.

King exemplifies that any case requires more than being right in order to be heard, in order to lead to action. King did not have just evidence on his side—evidence of racism, classism, and widespread inequities—he also had moral imperative on his side. Yet, he was rejected and contested by many different stakeholders in the American Dream.

This is daunting for those who believe public education is in fact a powerful foundation for continuing King’s dream for the U.S.; this is daunting for those who recognize that we are failing education reform even as leaders call it the civil rights issue of our time.

I am not willing to concede yet, but I am more and more convinced that evidence alone is a weak part of any public debate addressing large and thus cumbersome movements.

As we seek ways in which we can support public education, public school teachers, and the children of the U.S., we must first be right—in other words, be on the side of evidence—but we must also recognize that being on the side of evidence is likely never enough.

And any fight worth fighting will take time and patience—like training all year for one more chance to ride that century to the top of a mountain in a personal best time, only to find yourself unable to push through when your body fails you once again.

You do the best you can that day, and then you start training for the next year, no less determined.

[1] For a solid base of what we know (or rightfully, don’t know) about cramping see the following:

Muscle Cramps and Mythology

Muscle Cramp Theory

Sports drinks, sweat and electrolytes – part 1

Sports drinks, sweat and electrolytes – part 2

Muscle Cramps: Part I  //  Theories and Fallacies of muscle cramps

Muscle Cramps: Part II  //  The electrolyte depletion model of muscle cramps

Muscle Cramps: Part III  //  A novel theory for Exercise-associated muscle cramps

Muscle Cramps: Part IV  //  An explanation of the evolution of science

Muscle Cramps: Part V  //  What all this means for you

Does Gatorade Actually Work?

[2] Consider the evidence against Common Core as any different from the failed standards/testing paradigm preceding them:

  • Hout and Elliott (2011), Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education: Most recent decades of high-stakes accountability reform hasn’t work.
  • French, Guisbond, and Jehlen (2013), Twenty Years after Education Reform: High-stakes accountability in Massachusetts has not worked.
  • Loveless (2012), How Well Are American Students Learning?: “Despite all the money and effort devoted to developing the Common Core State Standards—not to mention the simmering controversy over their adoption in several states—the study foresees little to no impact on student learning” (p. 3).
  • Mathis (2012): Existence and/or quality of standards not positively correlated with NAEP or international benchmark test data; “Further, the wave of high-stakes testing associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in the ‘dumbing down’ and narrowing of the curriculum” (2 of 5).
  • Whitehurst (2009), Don’t Forget Curriculum: “The lack of evidence that better content standards enhance student achievement is remarkable given the level of investment in this policy and high hopes attached to it. There is a rational argument to be made for good content standards being a precondition for other desirable reforms, but it is currently just that – an argument.”
  • Kohn (2010), Debunking the Case for National Standards: CC nothing new, and has never worked before.
  • Victor Bandeira de Mello, Charles Blankenship, Don McLaughlin (2009), Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scales: 2005-2007: Why does research from the USDOE not show high-quality standards result in higher NAEP scores?
  • Horn (2013): “The 2012 NAEP Long-Term Trends are out, and there is a good deal that we may learn from forty years of choking children and teachers with more tests with higher stakes: IT DOESN’T WORK!”

2 thoughts on “Muscle Cramps, Evidence, and the Public Education Reform Debate”

  1. Paul,

    I think you make an analogy that is spot-on. Evidence alone is not enough to trump emotion; never has been, and never will be. If public schools are to make the case for their value, they need to engage the public emotionally as well as with hard facts. Right now, in my opinion, we’re doing a much-less-than-optimal job of emotional connection. I am running a conversation session at next weekend’s EduCon in Philadelphia on exactly this: how do we do a better job engaging with the public? I’d love to hear any thoughts or suggestions you’d have to offer to that end! (


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