Laurie Rogers: Lake Wobegon Effect, or Deceit by Omission?

If school administrators are only giving you good news, you’re probably not getting the whole truth.

Laurie Rogers

Laurie 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

Ever your humble servant, I give you actual information that isn’t tarnished by the district’s desire to appear competent. Administrators are touting their new focus on “data-driven” decision-making (as if it were a smart new task and not something they should have always done). I offer “celebrations” from these GNOMES, followed by real data. I encourage all ITs, UPs, and USs to share this with others.

The GNOMES celebrate:

“North Central, Lewis and Clark, Ferris and Rogers were named to the 2011 Washington Post top high schools list for the number of students taking AP tests. Only one other Spokane County school made the list.” (Source: “Points of Pride.”)

Laurie says: About the Washington Post ranking

The Washington Post survey is based on how many students take AP tests. It isn’t based on how many pass the classes or how many pass the tests. Therefore, the more students a district shoves into AP classes (ready or not), the higher its Washington Post ranking – even if every student ultimately flunks the tests. Directors and administrators have said that passing the AP test isn’t as important as being in an AP class – that “students learn just by being there.”

The GNOMES celebrate:

More students are college and career ready, as evidenced by the increased number of AP Placement exams (Source: The superintendent’s June Rotary Club presentation.)

The data say: About Spokane’s AP Classes

1992 2000 2008 2010
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
Percent passing 73% 81% 54% 55%
Percent failing 27% 19% 46% 45%
Average Grade 3.18 3.45 2.72 2.69


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.)

The GNOMES celebrate:

“A higher percentage of SPS students go to college directly after high school than in the state.” (Source: District publication “Points of Pride.”

The data say: About college and career readiness

The 2010 10th-grade state math test (the HSPE) was a low-level, basic skills math test. Students needed just 56.9% to pass and to be considered by the state as “proficient” on the exam. The pass rates in 2010 for Spokane’s high schools looked like this: Ferris: 54%, Lewis and Clark: 54.2%, North Central, 27.1%, and Shadle: 44.4%.

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.

Included in the data are students who enrolled in remedial math at SCC/SFCC within a year of graduation. Not included are students who tested into remedial math but waited to take their classes, graduates who left the area or who went to a four-year, graduates who didn’t want to go to college, students who dropped out, and graduates who tested into remedial math but decided it was too much to do.

The GNOMES celebrate:

In 2009, Spokane Public Schools scored 106.9 on Education Week’s “Cumulative Promotion Index.” In contrast, Seattle is at 78.3, Tacoma is at 69.3, Kent is at 104.1, and Everett is at 74.7. (Source: District presentation on the Superintendent’s Work Plan.)

Laurie says: About Education Week’s Cumulative Promotion Index

According to Education Week, “a score of 100 points on this index indicates that the district’s graduation rate is exactly as would be expected, based on its size, student composition, and other characteristics. Districts with scores greater than 100 points are outperforming expectations.”

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.

The GNOMES celebrate:

Graduation rates are “improving.” (Source: The superintendent’s June Rotary Club presentation.)

About Spokane’s graduation rates

How much of the “increase” was because of actual academic improvement? The district tracked down some students and removed them from the most recent total, causing the most recent graduation rate to go up. However, previous years’ numbers were not recounted. It’s statistically incorrect to compare non-reworked numbers with reworked numbers.

Additionally, the “improved” graduation rate doesn’t indicate whether the students were qualified to begin college or a trade when they left high school. As noted, indications are that most were NOT college or career ready.

Additionally, the graduation rates do not indicate how many disgruntled families left the district before graduation. See below for information on that.

The data say: About enrollment

Full-time enrollment in Spokane dropped by about 2,650 from 2003 to May 2010. This is a net figure, not a gross figure, therefore, incoming students offset the total drop.

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

The district didn’t release the results of this survey to the general public.

The GNOMES say:
“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.”)

About the mission of Spokane Public Schools

Spokane Public Schools’ stated mission is useless. Taxpayers do not want to pay $12,000+ per student to develop skills and talents through “learning experiences, supportive relationships and relevant real-life applications.” The district’s mission allows for a heck of a lot of wiggle room, and it holds no one accountable for getting the students ready academically for postsecondary life.

The GNOMES celebrate:

“SPS earned excellence awards in financial reporting seven years in a row and sustains the highest credit ratings possible.” (Source: “Points of Pride.”)

Laurie says: About the district’s finances

Few community members can understand the district budget, as it’s given to the people. Many specific details aren’t available on the district’s Web site.

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.

Laurie H. Rogers has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication and a master’s in interpersonal communication, emphasizing the evaluation of argumentation and logic. In 2001, she founded Safer Child, Inc., a nonprofit child advocacy information resource. In 2007, she narrowed her advocacy to public education, and in 2010, she founded Focus on the Square™, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving American K-12 education.

Laurie is the author of the blog “Betrayed,” located at http://betrayed-whyeducationisfailing.blogspot.com/. Her book Betrayed: How the Education Establishment Has Betrayed America and What You Can Do about It (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2011) is now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. She and colleagues in Spokane, WA, have begun a new informational Web site called Partnership for Kids, located at http://partnershipforkids.org/

Besides serving on the executive committee for Where’s the Math?, Laurie has a background in finance, journalism and child advocacy. She has volunteered in schools – tutoring children in literacy and math, and teaching chess, argumentation and knitting. She lives in Spokane with her husband, daughter and two cats.

Contact Laurie Rogers at wlroge@comcast.net.

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