The Lake Wobegon Effect is a powerful thing.
Most readers will recognize the reference. Lake Wobegon is the fictional hometown of the NPR radio show Prairie Home Companion that made Garrison Keillor famous. Keillor says that in Lake Wobegon “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Wikipedia actually has an entry on the Lake Wobegon Effect, which reads,
The Lake Wobegon effect, a natural human tendency to overestimate one’s capabilities, is named after the town. The characterization of the fictional location, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,” has been used to describe a real and pervasive human tendency to overestimate one’s achievements and capabilities in relation to others. The Lake Wobegon effect, where all or nearly all of a group claim to be above average, has been observed among drivers, CEOs, hedge fund managers, presidents, coaches, radio show hosts, late night comedians, stock market analysts, college students, parents, and state education officials, among others.
What Wikipedia leaves out is the resistance human beings exert against finding out the truth. Parents and voters, among other humans, don’t like finding that out.
Hence the resistance to the multistate Common Core standards in math and English language arts and the call for a “Florida Plan.” When Florida’s educational leaders talk about the state’s K-12 system, they avoid talking about absolute student achievement levels like those from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and college entrance exams – the SAT and ACT. In each of these assessment programs, Florida has little to brag about (except perhaps 4th grade reading). Instead, the state’s leaders talk about Florida’s improvements in achievement levels and the narrowing of racial achievement gaps – about which they should be proud – and the state’s high rankings by Education Week, which do not reflect students’ absolute achievement levels.
The multistate Common Core standards come hand-in-hand with multistate assessments. Florida is a member of a multistate Common Core assessment consortium called PARCC, and in fact holds a leadership position in the PARCC consortium. There is one other large multistate Common Core assessment consortium, called Smarter Balanced. Both consortia received federal funds for development. The idea is that the states in the PARCC consortium will be able to compare their students’ achievement levels across state lines (as will states in the Smarter Balanced consortium). And there’s the rub.
Let’s say that you are a politician who has been telling voters for several years that Florida’s K-12 system is in the top 10 in the nation because Education Week’s rankings say so. But you are sharp enough to know that on most NAEP and college entrance exam measures the state’s students are only average or worse. It seems quite unlikely that you would be enthusiastic about the implementation of the Common Core and PARCC’s multistate assessment because it will reveal to voters that Florida’s students are, on the average, not particularly strong, and certainly not top 10 material. It will show beyond any doubt that Florida is not Lake Wobegon. And voters – subject to the Lake Wobegon Effect as much as anyone – will not like that. Not at all.
So what do you – the shrewd and successful politician – do? You call for the implementation of a “Florida Plan.” This Florida Plan would remove the state from the PARCC multistate consortium and instead keep Florida doing what it’s doing now – writing its own tests and keeping the comparisons within state lines. You can set the passing scores anywhere you like (I helped with that process on Florida’s math and science tests last year). If you want to tell voters that all our students are above average, then you can do so.
Of course, you don’t tell the public that the Florida Plan is motivated by fear of the truth about student achievement and an assault on the Lake Wobegon Effect. Instead, you say that the tests cost too much, or take too many hours, or represent federal overreach. And you hope that nobody notices that your cost concerns are belied by the state’s burgeoning expenditures on AP exams and that 20 hours spent on testing in a school year of 180 six-hours days really isn’t that much. And you also hope nervous parents buy into the idea that PARCC exams will be delivered by black helicopters.
Fortunately (for you, the savvy politician) you have help from parent groups like Parents Across America (which should probably be renamed Parents Across Lake Wobegon, or PALW) that usually oppose you on issues like teacher evaluation and school grades.
And this is where we are – Florida’s K-12 moment of truth. Will the state try to emerge from the Lake Wobegon Effect by sticking with the Common Core and adopting a multistate assessment program? Or will we take the pressure – the pressure to compete nationally and internationally – off of our parents, children and teachers by adopting the Florida Plan?
We’ll know soon.