I'm re-posting this piece from Maureen Downey's Get Schooled blog. -- M.K.
The Snark syndrome in educational policymaking
By Peter Smagorinsky
In 1993, Eileen Byrne published "Women and Science: The Snark Syndrome."
Snarks have been around for some time, first appearing in 1874 in Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark." Well, actually they are imaginary, as I learned when sent on a “snark hunt” as a tenderfoot Boy Scout on my first camping trip long ago, much to the delight of the older boys in my troop.
Byrne in particular draws on the following stanzas to coin the “snark syndrome” or “snark effect”:
'Just the place for a Snark!' the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.
'Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.'
Byrne reads these stanzas as a commentary on the effects of repeating something until it becomes widely accepted, no matter how little evidence supports it or how much of a chimera the claim is designed to prop up. To Lewis Carroll and to George Orwell, who called this phenomenon "The Big Lie," the deception is deliberate. In the area of educational policymaking and teaching theory, the repetition may follow from ignorance as much as deliberate deception.
Regardless of the source, the term provides a way to characterize how the repeated assertion of an idea that has no empirical support can indeed become institutionalized in policy discussions and affect those subject to its consequences.
I find considerable evidence for this phenomenon in Arne Duncan and David Coleman’s educational world and their decision to barge ahead with Race to the Top and the Common Core State Standards, even though there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate a need for either, or the efficaciousness of either as planned and implemented. If anything, the evidence against the idea that massive testing improves teaching and learning, rather than disrupting teaching and learning and requiring teachers to spend as much time submitting reports as they do thinking about how to teach better, is quite convincing.
Neither Duncan nor Coleman, however, has much use for things like research-based knowledge of educational processes, in spite of their roles as U.S. Secretary of Education and president of the College Board. Rather, they began with agendas and marshaled their evidence selectively to support it, and then repeated their claims endlessly until they became part of the national conversation, buttressed by the bully pulpits afforded these two men with a total of zero teaching experience between them.
Duncan and Coleman have hardly acted alone; rather, they are part of a great national chorus of people repeating over and over that schools are in crisis, teachers are terrible, public education doesn’t work, market-based thinking applies as well to schooling as it does to commerce, charter schools work by virtue of being charter schools, vouchers can enable private schools to admit unlimited numbers of students who don’t want to attend their neighborhood schools, educators know less about education than people who have never taught in schools, teachers are greedy and selfish, principals all know what’s best for teachers and students and so should have unlimited authority, and countless other canards whose verity follows from repetition rather than documentation.
The first time I met Roy O’Donnell, a Southern gentleman who taught at UGA from the 70s through the 90s and now rests in peace, he was speaking at a conference, where he told the following story: An adult overheard a young boy from Georgia telling his friends about another boy who, in the boy’s phrasing, was “iggernant” about something. The adult stepped in for a gentle correction, saying that the boy surely meant “ignorant.” The boy replied, “No, I meant iggernant. Ignorant—that’s when you don’t know nothin’. Iggernant—that’s when you don’t know nothin’, and you don’t want to know nothin’.
Arne Duncan works in Washington, D. C., which is also the location of the headquarters of the American Educational Research Association, so he has plenty of access to cutting-edge educational research. He traveled to the recent AERA convention in San Francisco, where he said in a major address the “solution to mediocre tests is not to abandon assessment” but to generate “much better assessment." That statement is not only iggernant, it meets the classic definition of insanity, attributed to Albert Einstein, which is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Wouldn’t it be nice if educational policy were driven by reality instead of snark hunts and iggernance, driven by claims repeated so often that they are taken as axiomatic by stakeholders great and small, from the folks at the barbershop to the U.S. Secretary of Education and President of the College Board? Perhaps then we would not have one of the lowest levels of teacher morale ever measured, and instead have classrooms characterized by something more stimulating than preparing for yet another round of tests that even Arne Duncan finds mediocre.
Peter Smagorinsky is Distinguished Research Professor of English Education in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of Georgia.