The Fourth Lie, and What Hope Truth?

The irony of truth may often be more impressive than truth itself. Consider the pithy truism “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

While the snark of this aphorism certainly spurs us toward a kind of truth about the misuse of numbers, ironically, the words themselves are typically associated with Mark Twain, who did popularize the phrasing, but certainly was not the original source; and to make this more complex, it seems no clear source has been identified.

And while it is now in vogue to debate the rise of fake news and how we find ourselves in a post-truth society, the jumbled relationship between mainstream media and truth/fake news reaches well back into the 1800s.

We seem unable even to face the truth about fake news.

As an educator and writer (one who ventures, foolishly, into public discourse), I have a long and frustrating relationship with a fourth kind of lie: Things people just believe, regardless of the evidence otherwise.

Over three decades, for example, I have talked patiently on the phone with education journalists—from The New York Times to state and local newspapers—who responded to evidence-based arguments with equal parts shock (“I have never heard that before”) and disbelief.

Here are some of the public claims I have doggedly shared for decades now:

  • Education is not the great equalizer; in fact, home and community conditions combined with race, gender, and other individual characteristics are far more powerful influences than school or teacher impact on both academic outcomes by students and then their status after formal education.
  • In-school education reform is destined to fail if out-of-school factors remain unaddressed due to a lack of political and public will to confront systemic inequity with public policy reform.
  • Accountability, standards (always changing), high-stakes testing (also, always changing), and grades are all flawed mechanisms for insuring universal public education in the pursuit of democracy, individual agency, and equity.
  • Formal schooling reflects and perpetuates the norms of community it serves; formal schooling almost never proves to be a change agent.
  • The type of schooling—public, charter, private—tends not to determine educational quality; school quality (typically determined by narrow measures such as student test scores) remains mostly bound to the characteristics of the students and communities being served. As a concurrent fact, there are no “miracle” schools.
  • Formal education must remain a commitment to public institutions; market forces are inappropriate for insuring all children have an equitable opportunity to learn.

Repeatedly, however, these claims, all strongly supported by significant bodies of research, elicit, at best, my being discounted as just a “critic,” and at worst, my being framed as some sort of enemy of reform out to protect anyone or anything except children, a cursed “defender of the status quo.”

And there was also too often crass nastiness, anger, and of course, lies.

Since education in practice is the result of state and public policy (driven, typically, by public and political narratives and beliefs—see lie four), here is a larger truism I have repeated for years with responses again running from disbelief to anger: The Obama education policy and discourse were just as misguided and harmful as the W. Bush education policy and discourse.

Toward the end of Obama’s administration, in fact, I had moved past skepticism and solidly into cynicism in terms of whether any journalists or politicians would set aside their beliefs (the fourth lie) and confront the truth about education and education reform.

However, in the fall of 2016, I noticed what I felt at the time was a crack in charter school support and began drafting a proposal that this was a harbinger of the end of the accountability era.

Before that piece was published, Trump was elected president, and my spark of hope soon looked like fool’s gold. In fact, I was embarrassed to have momentarily felt a glimmer of hope.

A year into Trumplandia, with a Department of Education and Secretary of Education that make the dumpster fires that were the DOE and SOE under W. Bush and Obama look like “the good ol’ days,” the irony has reached a new level.

Despite the market-based agenda under Trump/DeVos, the crack in charter school support has now been joined by mainstream pushback against testing and even grades; as well, recent arguments against the “tyranny of metrics” seem to match the case I and other educators/scholars have posed since the early 1980s when Reagan ushered in the accountability era for education reform.

Irony, in fact, seems to be trumped by the absurd—this from Trump-supporting South Carolina conservative (and Foghorn Leghorn impersonator) Governor Henry McMaster, as reported by Cindi Scoppe at The State:

So it was no surprise that the best part of [McMaster’s] first State of the State address was the way he framed public education. He could have been channeling so many teachers when he talked about the role poverty and parents play in how well children do in school. “Poverty,” he said, “is the enemy of education; some of our children, through no fault of their own, live in circumstances so bleak that intellectual stimulation and learning are but fleeting experiences. Ultimately, gainful employment of the parents or adults in the home offers the surest deliverance of the child into educated society.”

But he didn’t use that as an excuse for failure, noting instead that: “Good teachers and good principals clearly are the key to success. There is rarely a child who will not or cannot be taught. The key is not trying to pour knowledge in, but rather opening eyes and imaginations and letting eagerness and fascination out. A good teacher can do this.”

Unlike Scoppe, I am shocked, damned shocked.

Poverty, McMaster seems to concede, is an essential and powerful force determining the education of children in SC. But let’s also unpack that he still idealizes “[g]ood teachers and good principals” as “key[s] to success.”

Yes, teachers and principals matter, but as I have argued and as the evidence shows, they rarely have causal impact that can be measured because of out of school factors and other systemic forces such as racism and sexism.

And let’s not ignore that McMaster remains trapped in the fourth lie because he believes in market forces and fails to put his rhetoric into practice with actual policy (embracing instead tax cuts that certainly will erode any hopes of effective education policy).

Creeping into 2018, I am trying to regain my skepticism, a first step toward hope that truth can rise through all this muck, decades of muck.

Lies, I recognize, have the upper hand—lies, damned lies, statistics, and what people just stubbornly and blindly believe—but truth seems to be resilient.

At least it seems pretty to think so.