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Academic Freedom Isn't Free: The “Big Lie,” American as Apple Pie

As one of my sabbatical projects I have been completing my online annotated bibliography of English educator Lou LaBrant.

My doctoral dissertation was an educational biography of LaBrant, but since the late 1990s, I have returned often to her work in my teaching, my scholarship, and my public advocacy and writing.

This fall, I was struck by her “English at the Mid-Century” published in 1951, specifically this:

LaBrant’s recognition of the power and dangers of the “big lie” in the wake of WWII reads incredibly prescient in 2022 in the wake of Trump and the garbled rise of “fake news” in post-truth America.

However, LaBrant’s idealism about America now feels inexcusably naive—for her America and ours.

The “big lie” is not just a feature of politics; in fact, the “big lie” has become mainstream media’s primary approach to a wide range of topics. And the “big lie” is a recurring way the media, the public, and politicians batter universal public education—one of the essential elements of a free people committed to democracy.

Those without historical context may think “fake news” and the “big lie” concerning education either doesn’t exist or is a very recent phenomenon.

In the nineteenth century, in fact, the Catholic church established an assault on public education that sounds eerily similar to today:

[P]ublic schools … [are] a “dragon … devouring the hope of the country as well as religion.” Secular public education … [is filled with] “Socialism, Red Republicanism, Universalism, Infidelity, Deism, Atheism, and Pantheism—anything, everything, except religion and patriotism.”

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby, (pp. 257-258)

This initial assault on public education was grounded in the “big lie,” and to be blunt, it was about market share: the Catholic Church feared the allure of universal public education drawing students from their schools.

Here is a fact of history few people acknowledge: There hasn’t been a day since then that anyone has been satisfied with student achievement in the U.S.

The media, the public, and political leaders love few things more than lamenting students’ scores on our sacred standardized tests—the SAT/ACT since early twentieth century, ITBS, and then the onslaught of state accountability tests and NAEP since the 1980s and 1990s.

And here is another fact: Throughout a century-plus of characterizing public education as failing, classroom instruction, student demographics, teacher demographics, school compositions, state standards and assessments, etc., have all changed dozens and dozens of times.

However, at any point of education crisis, there is ample room to blame singular causes for failure, and that, of course, is the “big lie.”

The “big lie” approach to criticizing education is currently driving two powerful and harmful movements—the anti-CRT/book banning movement and the “science of reading” movement.

Are teachers (well over 75% white women) indoctrinating students with anti-whiteness by hiding CRT in the curriculum? No. It is a manufactured crisis, a “big lie.”

Are teachers and librarians grooming students to become LGBTQ+ by assigning books that portray alternatives to so-called traditional families and sexuality? No. It is a manufactured crisis, a “big lie.”

Are teachers failing to implement reading science in their reading instruction (because teacher educators either willfully ignore or don’t know reading science) and therefore allowing students to fail to acquire reading proficiency? No. It is a manufactured crisis, a “big lie.”

Are major reading programs dependent on three-cueing and lacking systematic phonics cheating students out of acquiring reading proficiency? No. It is a manufactured crisis, a “big lie.”

However, all of these are examples of not only the “big lie,” but also how effective the “big lie” can be.

Let’s consider reading proficiency for a moment to unpack the “big lie” behind the “science of reading” movement.

Here are NAEP reading scores for grade 4 since 1992:


Notice that national data hover within a few points of 220 for thirty years—what in many ways can fairly be called a flat longitudinal data line.

Most people associate the “science of reading” movement starting at the earliest around 2013 and specifically around 2018.

Yet, those recent scores are little different than the two decades before (and we must acknowledge that the “science of reading” is not resistant to powerful social forces such as the pandemic).

Also, across thirty years, students and teachers have been held accountable for several different sets of standards, many different reading programs have been adopted and implemented, and the demographics of students have shifted in significant ways (public schools are increasingly populated by higher poverty students, and minoritized students constitute over 50% of students).

Nothing is consistent except student achievement.

It is nonsensical to ascribe blame (or credit) to any one instructional approach, any one adopted program, any one set of standards, etc.

So if we address one of the elements of the “big lie” in the “science of reading” movement—that Lucy Calkins’s Units of Study is a primary way we fail students learning to read—this seems preposterous in the grand scheme of educational crisis rhetoric, but also, that program is only the third most used.

But further, since I taught in public schools for 18 years, I can attest that students in two different classes taught by different teachers are not receiving the same instruction regardless of the official curriculum or programs.

The “big lie,” then, is always grounded in oversimplification and relies on crisis rhetoric to stir emotional responses.

Once we add context such as acknowledging that Jeanne Chall made the same exact arguments about the failures of reading instruction and achievement from the late 1960s into the 1990s and then the National Reading Panel made the same exact claims and offered the same exact solution (scientifically based instruction) just twenty years ago, the “big lie” is exposed as a house of cards.

Why, then, does the “big lie” repeat itself so often in education discussions and why is it so effective?

First, educational effectiveness is mostly driven by out-of-school factors (60%-80% of measurable student achievement) and not teacher instruction, curriculum, standards, or adopted programs. However, Americans resist systemic explanations and ideologically are attracted to blaming individual behavior.

Therefore, blaming Lucy Calkins is more compelling to American ideology than acknowledging poverty and inequity as the causal reasons behind student learning.

Second, we as a society have a dysfunctional relationship with statistics.

On one hand, Americans trust or believe in the bell-shaped curve, which predicts that human behaviors (including learning) will fall on a continuum that includes a few failing, many achieving “normally,” and a few excelling.

And then on the other hand, Americans expect all student to be above average (which is what proficiency is on NAEP).

A perfect example of that dysfunction is that George W. Bush’s crowning legislation, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), included the self-defeating requirement that all student be proficient by 2014.

One reason that NCLB was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is that politicians eventually realized such a requirement cannot be mandated by caveat, legislation, and such an expectation defies human behavior.

Wanting and trying to foster proficient readers so that all students achieve the literacy they deserve (what we absolutely must do) is far different than requiring and expecting that all students meet that lofty goal—especially since we do not have the political will to address the out-of-school factors that would have the greatest impact on that achievement.

As LaBrant noted, the “big lie” is an ugly reality in politics, but it also is an ugly and effective way to make sure our schools continue to fail to meet the needs of all students.

The anti-CRT/book banning movement and the “science of reading” movement are selling the “big lie” and, ironically, lots of people are cashing in (the really nasty hypocrisy coloring all of this).

We can and should do better for our students, especially those who need us the most (those trapped in the lower end of that bell-shaped curve).

But the “big lie” serves the political and financial interests of those dedicated to those lies.

Keep in mind when people point an accusatory finger, three more are pointing back.

Those screaming that someone else is selling a story, well, are selling a different story, the “big lie.”

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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...