Manufactured Controversies: How Non-Educator “Education Experts” Twist the Truth

There are times, as a teacher of biology, when I suffer what I call “math envy.”  See, none of my math teacher colleagues ever have to defend the fact that 2 + 2 = 4.  This is a well-established fact; accepted by mathematicians around the world.

Teaching biology, though, I find myself defending the well-established facts of science on a regular basis.  The dynamic 4.6 billion year history of Earth and the ever-evolving nature of life are favorite targets of anti-science pundits.

“2 + 2 = 4” and other math facts don’t face such challenges. This is not merely because of professional consensus.  Rather, it’s because no one outside the field of mathematics stands to gain anything by asserting that 2 + 2 = 6.

Professional consensus fails to protect the basic facts of geology and biology from unfounded challenge, because non-scientists have something to gain.  Emotional comfort and prophet’s profits are common motives.  These non-science motives drive the young-Earthers, creation “scientists”, and intelligent design “theorists” to push their world view in spite of the fact that such ideas have as much basis in science as 2 + 2 = 6 has in mathematics.

Barred by law from directly inserting their non-science ideas into public school science classes, these non-scientists’ latest gambit is a plea to “teach the controversy.”  Exposing students to differing viewpoints and inspiring critical thought is a good thing in many cases.  This, however, isn’t one of them.

The critical difference is that, as far as science is concerned, there is no controversy.  The “controversy” they want taught does not exist within the realm of science. It is completely manufactured by non-scientists.  Teaching this made-up controversy would undermine the quality of science education just like teaching 2 + 2 = 6 as an “alternative theory” would undermine the teaching of mathematics.

It serves the anti-science agenda to manufacture a controversy and sell it to the public.  Official-sounding, authoritatively-named organizations push the agenda upon a public who likely won’t understand the difference between The Discovery Institute (umbrella organization for the creationist “Center for Science and Culture”) and the National Science Foundation.

It is an effective strategy:  naming organizations to create the illusion of unbiased scientific objectivity while covering the true agenda of the group.  This practice has exploded into the field of education “reform”; where it reaches unparalleled absurdity.

The expansion of ironic-to-the-point-of-self-parody organizational names has even spawned a parody: Last Stand 4 Children First.  It’s a joke, of course; but the fact that it’s hard to tell the difference between pundit and parody is hardly a laughing matter.

Take a look at a few real organizations:  The Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability. The National Council on Teacher Quality.  The Center for Education Data and Research.  The Center on Education Policy. The Center on Reinventing Public Education.
And, of course, Students First.

What do these numerous altruistic-sounding organizations have in common?

Besides their short and intertwined list of financial supporters; each to some degree promotes the lie that public education is an abysmal failure.  The fix, accordingly, is found only in the policies touted by these non-educator education experts.

That’s right: non-educator education experts.  Just like the non-scientists who insist they know more about science than professional scientists do, these non-educators insist they have the solutions to the fictitious education crisis they have fabricated for us.

And just like the creation “scientists;” these groups fabricate “science” to promote their agenda.  Look closely at the published work arising from the aforementioned groups.  How many publications bear the title of “working paper?”

“Working paper” is the non-educator, non-scientist’s way of making their non-peer-reviewed, conclusion-is-step-one style of work seem credible.  They have “research” to support larger class sizes; inexperienced, minimally-trained, low-paid, non-union teachers; pay-for-test-scores; and test-score-based mass firings as successful education practices.

At the same time, their “research” asserts that student poverty is irrelevant to academic success.  Teacher education and experience – also irrelevant.  Higher teacher’s salaries – irrelevant.  Overall public education funding – irrelevant.

Time and time again, these so-called working papers support the corporate ed-reform agenda when no legitimate, peer-reviewed scientific study ever has.  As far as real science and real professional educators are concerned, there is no controversy.

Real science supports what real teachers have said all along:  Class size matters. Teacher education and experience matter.  Teachers’ salaries matter. Unions matter. Funding matters. High-stakes test scores and all that comes with them – beyond irrelevant and actually harmful.

But the general public usually won’t know the difference, and easily buys the manufactured controversy.  The controversy then sells newspapers, weekly news magazines, and wins airtime on Oprah and NBC’s Education Nation.

The manufactured controversy can even garner one-time speaker’s fees in excess of what most public school teachers earn in a year.

Michelle Rhee isn’t above dickering with her standard $50,000 speaker fee.  She has been known to knock off a few thousand dollars for the greater good. Provided, of course, that those who wish to be graced with her presence still fly her first class, lavish her with a VIP hotel suite, a chauffeured Town Car, and pay all her incidentals.

But with a corporate name like Students First, it must be about the kids.


Comments (5)

  1. I don’t feel comfortable with this article. It has an unnecessarily bad attitude about religion (religion is not anti-science. Whoever disagrees with that is closed minded and is living in the Dark Ages).

    And it also has an unnecessarily bad attitude about parents’ choice in education for their children.

  2. Thank you – as a former teacher of english and history I too experienced math envy, except critical thinking and discussion about ideas is acceptable literacy curriculum – although less and less so with the emphasis on standardized testing, which discourages development of critical thinking and ideas. As for all the teacher haters out there (ugh I can’t stand Michelle Rhee – she reminds me of all those overpaid consultants who rate our teaching skills on how closely our pedagogy matches their script) how about the damage they do to the student / teacher / parent relationship by creating an atmosphere of mistrust?


    The Parent Trigger is an innovation in education reform recently passed into law in California.

    Briefly put, if half the parents whose children attend a failing public school sign a petition requesting reform of the school, the school must either shut down, become a charter school, or undergo one of two other types of reform. According to the Web site of the Los Angeles Parents Union (, five schools currently have petition drives underway to transform their schools. These parents are moving forward on the Parent Trigger absent legal clarity, an indication of the demand for reform. At least one other state – Connecticut is considering similar legislation. (Connecticut passed a wide-ranging education reform bill in May, but the final compromise legislation did not include a Parent Trigger provision.)

    • The “parent trigger” idea is a thinly-veiled attempt to profit off of public education – and with a name like “parent trigger” and a claim of “choice”, it’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about here.

      If the folks who push this sort of legislation REALLY believe in “parental choice”, then I’m sure they would support expanding these laws to give parents the power to force charter schools to become traditional public schools. New Orleans might be a good place to start, followed by New York and Los Angeles.

      We all know how well that would be received by the so-called “education reform” crowd….

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