Sharon L. Nichols is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio located in San Antonio, Texas. Dr. Nichols has authored over two dozen books, journal articles and book chapters related to youth development and motivation and educational policy. She is coauthor of two books including, Collateral damage: How high-stakes testing corrupts America’s schools  (with D. C. Berliner, Harvard Education Press, 2007) and America’s Teenagers—Myths and Realities: Media Images, Schooling, and the Social Costs of Careless Indifference (with T. L. Good, Erlbaum, 2004). Her current work focuses on the impact of test-based accountability on teachers, their instructional practices and adolescent motivation and development.  

“18 loafers you’ll love!”

“8 ways to end a toxic marriage!” 

When we see numbers, we tend to have an automatic “buy in” response. Take the two headlines above. Social media enthusiasts encounter virtual lists like this all the time. And, if it catches our eye, we might click on it and take a quick look. What’s the harm in getting a peak at those 18 loafers or 8 tips? Our casual encounter with lists such as these hardly has us questioning their veracity–whether 18 or 8 adequately capture the range of loafers or tips available. The number itself tends to frame our thinking in such a way that we unquestioningly accept there are no more (or fewer) than 18 possible lovable loafers in the world! And I am probably out of luck if tips 1-8 don’t help me end that marriage.

Nobel economist Daniel Kahneman explains these encounters with the world according to level 1 and 2 systems of thinking. Our automatic responses (level 1) typify how we might react to seeing those precious 18 loafers—yep, 18 loafers, no more, no less. Perfect. But we also have a system that engages when we are more effortful in our thinking (level 2) as when we might start questioning the number of tips offered and their quality. Level 2 thinking asks whether 8 tips adequately captures the full range of possible marriage ending options and questions what “toxic” means in the first place. Reactions managed by level 1 are quick and automatic, whereas reactions managed by level 2 are more effortful, purposeful, and take time. According to Kahneman, our immediate reactions typically dominate how we engage with information since we are naturally lazy and slow (or resistant) to engage level 2 responses. Yep, 8 is good, moving on.

Our culture has grown increasingly satisfied with level 1 responses to our most complex social problems—making us susceptible to buy into prepackaged “simplistic” solutions. Consider the NRA motto “guns don’t kill, people do.” This simple and strategic statement perpetuates a specific message about gun violence in the US–don’t blame the guns, blame the people. Framed this way, the only reasonable solution is to get rid of bad people (instead of getting rid of the guns). But, what if the saying were this, “Gun’s don’t kill people, lack of jobs, poverty, and hopelessness do.” What would happen? When framed this way, we are primed to think about the issue with guns as something more than bad people, but a problem of circumstance and opportunity. Now, it is easier to consider different types of solutions such as more economic development in communities and so forth. Educational policy makers understand this phenomenon very well, and have exploited it to sell a very specific and narrow view of educational problems and solutions.

Over and over we have been told our schools are failing or are in crisis. International test data are offered as confirmation—average performance puts American students in the middle and therefore “prove” our schools are failing. Consumers employ level 1 thinking and quickly and automatically adopt the narrative. Rather than question the validity of these data or critically examine any arguments that might debunk it, we buy into the evidence as proof of some problem that needs to be solved. And just as the NRA motto, we quickly adopted the offered solution to our “bad” schools and “bad” teachers—use standardized test scores to evaluate everyone and to punish, reward, motivate. This makes sense. It solves the alleged problem. We (i.e., our policymakers) embraced tests and the use of test results as the pathway to improvement because our conceptions of the problems with education were so narrowly defined for us. We easily purchased what business-minded leaders sold us about how to “save” our schools because we had already decided that schools were bad, so teachers were bad. As a result teachers and students have been pummeled by a test-and-punish system of accountability that has been demoralizing and counterproductive.

Test-based accountability systems are clearly the wrong solution to our manufactured educational problems. After more than a decade, we see how relying on a single indicator (standardized test scores) to evaluate something as complex as teaching and learning corrupts and distorts the process, including a watered down curriculum, a drill and kill emphasis of learning, and a demoralization of teachers and students. The most troubling outcome of this state of affairs has been how our students, especially our most marginalized and needy students are treated. These (disproportionately poor) students have greater difficulty passing tests, and therefore receive a second class education—less qualified teachers, boring, watered down and disconnected curriculum, and greater time spent on tests rather than engaged in discovery or active inquiry.

As voters, we must “wake up” our level 2 system and become more actively critical of the prepackaged problems-solutions we are sold—especially when problems are packaged as data or numbers. 18 loafers? 8 marriage tips? Sure? Why not? Average students’ scores on international tests put us in the middle? Our education system must be failing. Look at the data! But it is not true. Poverty, the surrounding conditions of poverty and all its social correlates are among the most significant parts of the problem. Well-off students do well. Poor students struggle. The blunt, monolithic “solution” of test-based reform misses the mark completely, hurts everyone and solves nothing.

It is more urgent than ever to question our leaders, and critically examine any problem narrative we are sold. Social problems are more complex than the averaged depictions that are emphasized and repeated and used to promote hostile agendas. Immigrants are not criminals. Teachers are not lazy and incompetent. As Zhao offers in his upcoming book, “numbers don’t lie, people do.” Complacency has run its course. As the growing opt-out movement demonstrates, we can fight back. Let’s start by holding our leaders accountable by actively critiquing (and rejecting) the narrow and misguided educational problems they are selling.

Additional Readings:
Biddle, B. J. (2014). The unacknowledged disaster: Youth poverty and educational failure in America. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Dunegan, K. J. (1993). Framing, cognitive modes, and image theory. Towards an understanding of a glass half full. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, 491-503.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking fast and slow. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Newell, A., & Simon, H. A. (1972). Human problem solving. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Prentice-Hall, Inc.

[1] Zhao, Y. (in press) (Ed.), Counting what counts. Solution Tree publishing.


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6 Responses to “The “truthy” lies of our educational problems by Sharon L. Nichols, Ph.D.”

  1. Katy Perry on 8/13/15 3:00 PM US/Eastern

    Thank you for this provocative and intriguing article. Looking at the assets our students bring with them to school is key to understanding who they are and how to work with them.

  2. Becky Hernandez on 8/20/15 5:47 PM US/Eastern

    I concur with the position that being bilingual is an asset and not a deficit. I had parents that were US born and raised, but they also spoke Spanish and took pains to make sure we spoke it correctly. English is my first language, but being bilingual was so helpful when we took standardized tests (ITBS) as I often was able to determine the meaning of a word by being able to see the root word origin in it. Being bilingual should be embraced as a positive instead of viewed as a negative as so many do today.

  3. Carlos Velez-Ibanez on 9/14/15 10:18 AM US/Eastern

    Very happy to see this fine work and needed badly. I just finished a little something that I did for UT Press that I will turn in next month and its title is “Language Hegemonies and their Discontents: From the Spanish Colonial Period to the Present.” If some of you would like to take a peek at the Draft version of the proposed title page Table of Contents and Introduction and Conclusion I would be happy to share them. It’s a bit too longish to send the ms by email. cvi

  4. DCBerliner on 10/2/15 10:54 PM US/Eastern

    Nice piece Sharon. Thanks.

  5. Gene Vglass on 10/4/15 3:38 PM US/Eastern

    Sharon Nichols gives plenty of food for Level 2 thought. Here’s a must read: Nichols and Berliner, Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools (Harvard Education Press).

  6. Tina Briones on 10/4/15 7:52 PM US/Eastern

    Well said Sharon. I hope our legislators read this.

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