Thursday, February 19, 2015

AV#117 Denialism

Aug. 11, 2014

The term may be new to us, but the idea is as old as … Scripture.  “To refuse to admit….”  A word—an attitude—to keep in mind, to watch for, in the coming days as the state releases TCAP scores and School Performance results.  An all-too-human flaw.  One we need to acknowledge—and try to overcome.

Perhaps especially if you are named Peter.  The name comes from the Greek, meaning “stone” or “rock.”  But The New Testament’s Peter was not always a rock.   

Matthew 26:72 –  And again he denied with an oath,
“I do not know the man.”

It’s human nature – AND it’s a pseudoscience!!!
Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills is a series of lectures by Dr. Steven Novella of the Yale School of Medicine (The Great Courses). In Lecture #20, “Denialism-Rejecting Science and History,” Novella “introduces you to denialism, a subset of pseudoscience… explore(s) the features and tactics of denialism … shed(s) light on how critical thinking helps you sidestep the more subtle forms of denialism we’re all susceptible to.”

“… we’re all susceptible…”  Part of our very nature as human beings.  Little wonder then that we are susceptible to it, in the world of education.  It’s my theme this month.

The lady doth protest too much, methinks" 

Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, is uncomfortable.  His little play is hitting home.  Too close to the truth.
Page 3: Poetry, Song, Film, Books / War
Page 4: Leadership / Climate Change & Science
Page 5: Death / Football & Concussions 
Pages 5-6 – 2 positive examples:                             
   1) Sports – no whining
   2) Another state confronts the facts
Addendum – Sheridan in denial
When educators say the accountability movement has relied too heavily on assessments that were never intended to be THE CRITERIA of a good school or a good teacher, they have a point. It is when school, district, state, and union leaders devote considerable energy to protesting that the tests and data are unfair, inaccurate, and/or misleading that I see more denial than responsibility.  More avoidance than acknowledgement of the reality about student performance in their school, their district, and our state.

1  to declare untrue <deny an allegation>
2  to refuse to admit or acknowledge :  disavow <deny responsibility>
5  to refuse to accept the existence, truth, or validity of
deny implies a firm refusal to accept as true, to grant or concede, or to acknowledge the existence or claims of <denied the charges>.

It is June 2014. The district’s chief accountability and research officer is giving her local school board an update on the Unified Improvement Plan Implementation, including the district’s accreditation contract with the state. Minutes of the meeting state that she “reviewed an outline of actions if the district continues to be assigned to the accreditation category of either Accredited with Priority Improvement Plan or Accredited with Turnaround Plan in the fall of 2014 and 2015.”  As this district has been Accredited on Priority Improvement three years running—Colorado’s second lowest rating—one assumes any member of this school board is aware of the potential consequences should the recent poor performance continue, especially any member on the board since 2009—FIVE YEARS AGO—when SB 163, the Education Accountability Act, was passed and created a new accountability system.  One assumes each board member has heard before that “the clock is ticking” and that each passing year brings the district closer to state intervention.  One assumes it is not only now, FIVE YEARS AFTER the passage of SB 163, that the district is beginning to feel the heat….

Earlier, at this same school board meeting, a legislative update included a slide noting that—as a result of state cuts in education in recent years (“the negative factor,” I believe it is called)—the district was actually getting $44 million less than it might have expected. 

Still, I am stunned when—following the update on where the district stands “on the accountability clock”—one board member (first elected in 2007, re-elected in 2011, so no excuse, in her case—unlike three members elected last fall—to say SB 163 is all new to her) takes the microphone to express her outrage.  That’s what I hear, anyway. 

The district’s minutes of the meeting are flat, dispassionate. They read: she “commented that the state implemented accreditation ratings at the same time millions of dollars were being cut from K-12 funding.” But according to my notes—I could be wrong, hence I avoid names here—this board member seemed appalled—stunned at the possibility of either state intervention, or a loss of accreditation.

“If this happens while we were given $44 million less…. this would be unconscionable.   We have a right to say this is wrong … they’ve made this as punitive as possible … it’s just amazing to me.”

Unconscionable,” if I understand her correctly, because “they”—the state, would first “take away” $44 million from the district, and then punish it for not being able to meet the expectations “they” impose.
“When you turn over rocks and look at all the squiggly things underneath, you can either put the rock down or you can say, ‘My job is to turn over rocks and look at the squiggly things,’ even if what you see can scare the hell out of you.” 
     Pitney Bowes executive Fred Purdue. From Good to Great, p. 72.
I call this denial.               

If this trait is in fact found in
human nature, educators
should not feel insulted or persecuted when it is noted that we, too, are guilty of it.  Our world is rampant with it.  I’ve been collecting examples of it this past year….  Easy to do, given how ubiquitous a trait this is….


As a reflection of human nature, art frequently reminds us of our tendency to deny.

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”
Yes, how many times must a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind,
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Bob Dylan
...still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.

Paul Simon, “The Boxer”
From Uncle Tom’s Cabin – on making excuses
Dinah was mistress of the whole art and mystery of excuse-making, in all its branches. Indeed, it was an axiom with her that the cook can do no wrong; and a cook in a Southern kitchen finds abundance of heads and shoulders on which to lay off every sin and frailty, so as to maintain her own immaculateness entire.  If any part of the dinner was a failure, there were fifty indisputably good reasons for it; and it was the fault undeniably of fifty other people, whom Dinah berated with unsparing zeal.  (ch. 18)
“the dangers of denial”
Cate Blanchett received the Academy Award for Best Actress in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. “Her miseries, we are made to feel, are the fallout from the corruptions she will not admit to.  She so wanted the good life that she looked the other way, or, more exact, refused to look at all, at the larcenies that made that life possible. She’s a walking advertisement for the dangers of denial.”
We all know that we fool ourselves. Some suggest it is out of necessity. Robert Trivers, an evolutionary biologist, recently published The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life.  He “makes the intriguing argument that deceit is a ‘deep feature’ of life, even of necessity, given genes’ brutal struggle to prevail.”
(New York Times Book Review, 2/16/14, p.28)


The cause and effect of wars is far too complex to reduce to any one flaw.  But just take the two world wars of the 20th century, and we are reminded that leaders were certainly guilty of self-deception.

World War I – This month we recall the “war to end all wars” that began 100 years ago. How unwilling or unable leaders were to see where their actions were taking them—and all of Europe … over a cliff: 

In his book, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark found that “the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.” (“Still in the grip of the Great War,” The Economist, 3/29/14)

“… Churchill ‘does not try to cheer us up with vain promises.’ Churchill knew his countrymen. When offered the choice to deliver false good news or the hard truth, he served the bad, for Englishmen, he proclaimed, ‘seem to like their food cooked that way.’”  The Last Lion, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, p. 263.
World War II – I just finished The Last Lion, vol. 3, the biography of Winston Churchill. (More on Churchill in the next section from Good to Great.) Denial comes to mind when we think of Neville Chamberlain and other British leaders throughout the 1930’s. Churchill spent that decade “in the wilderness,” a “prophet without honor in his own land”— until his warnings about Nazi Germany proved true.  Finally, in May 1940, after Hitler’s tanks rolled into several countries, England turned to Churchill.   

Perhaps “denial” is too strong.  No doubt the horrors of World War I left such an impact that those leading England and France during the 1930’s had every reason to want to believe Hitler’s intent could not be so evil.  Wishful thinking then?  But it comes to the same thing.


Now all the authorities
They just stand around and boast
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” Bob Dylan

If he were a Denialist—and not the Father of our County—perhaps this is how six-year old George Washington would have answered his dad:
“What tree?  Who me? Hatchet marks? What hatchet! I wasn’t even near that tree this morning!  You think it’s dead? Maybe it just looks dead!”
Numerous books on effective leadership (though aimed especially for business leaders,  relevant, too, I would argue, for a state commissioner of education, superintendents, and principals) stress the importance of truth-telling versus denial,   confronting the reality of the situation—and thereby helping an organization come to grips with the bad news—in order to move forward.

·        Good to Great – from chapter 4, “Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith)” 
Jim Collins’ popular book, not surprisingly, points to Churchill. Chapter 4 begins with a quote from this war-time leader who was willing to speak of “blood, sweat, and tears,” and of the grim truth about the challenges facing his country. “There is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away.”                                        
And later in this chapter, Collins writes:
… Churchill never failed to confront the most brutal facts. He feared that his towering, charismatic personality might deter bad news from reaching him in its starkest form. So, early in the war, he created an entirely separate department outside the normal chain of command, called the Statistical Office, with the principal function of feeding him—continuously updated and completely unfiltered—the most brutal facts of reality. He relied heavily on this special unit throughout the war, repeatedly asking for facts, just the facts. As the Nazi panzers swept across Europe, Churchill went to bed and slept soundly: “I had no need for cheering dreams,” he wrote, “Facts are better than dreams.”   
           ·   The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers
From “The Art of the Struggle,” The Economist’s review of this book by Ben Horowitz, 3/15/2014):
Mr. Horowitz remains upbeat in public as the company loses some big customers and misses shipping dates. Belatedly, he realizes he is only making matters worse because his sunny demeanor discourages workers from being frank about the startup’s problems and hunting for solutions to them.  His financial controller recommends being forthright with investors as well as staff. ‘If you are going to eat shit, don’t nibble,’ he says in a phrase that should be immortalized in corporate finance textbooks.”

I will not wade into the right and wrong on the controversy, but we know the concept of denial—a refusal to accept the evidence—is often heard in debates about climate change.

·        “Welcome to the Age of Denial,” (by Adam Frank, op-ed, New York Times, Aug. 22, 2013)
“Today, however, it is politically effective, and socially acceptable, to deny scientific fact…. Though transparently unscientific, denying evolution has become a litmus test for some conservative politicians, even at the highest levels.” (All bold throughout this essay is mine.)
(Frank is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester)
·        “Climate ‘denialists’ will be branded as anti-science and their funding sources exposed.” (An article on Tom Steyer’s support for like-minded politicians, “A run for his money,” The Economist , 4/12/14)
·        “They’re saying, ‘How do we know the sea is going to rise 39 inches in 100 years?’ And the truth is, we don’t. But you’ve got to start planning for something.  They’re trying to ignore the problem hoping it will go away.” (Andrew Coburn, associate director of Western Carolina University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, “Climate,” The Denver Post, 6/26/14)


From “How to Say Goodbye,” by Alice Hoffman.  In this moving essay, Hoffman’ sister-in-law, who was dying of brain cancer, asks Alice to visit the Mount Auburn Cemetery on her behalf, as she hoped to be laid to rest there.  (AARP Bulletin, Oct. 2013)

   “I was stunned and my heart sank, I was in denial. If we didn’t discuss her illness, perhaps the worst wouldn’t happen.…”

But Alice goes and returns to the hospital and tells her sister-in-law about the cemetery,

“… about the tulip trees, and the hedges of lilacs, and the blue herons. I showed her photographs of the pond and the weeping willows. What I saw in her expression was relief.
   “There are times when we all run away from the truth, when the facts of life are too painful to endure. We don’t want to know what comes next.  We’re taught to tell our ailing loved ones not to worry, even in the most difficult time, to look on the bright side and hope for the best….
   “A certain amount of denial in times of trauma may ease the way for our loved ones, but making a plan before dire circumstances strike helps us and those we love gain some measure of control over our fates.  The knowledge that our final wishes will be realized can bring us peace, as I know it did my sister-in-law.  She was able to choose what she wanted for herself….”


“League of Denial:  The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” Frontline documentary, fall 2013.

   “… the documentary turns up evidence of NFL disinformation, spinning and outright lying on the subject of the consequences of the regular violent collisions on the field….
   “Through each scientific finding, the NFL is shown to have reacted with denials, demanding n retractions form scientific papers, discrediting researchers who made the findings public and spending heavily to shut down evidence that football was responsible for the brain damage to players.” (“‘Denial’ tackles football’s failures,” The Denver Post, by Joanne Ostrow, 10/6/2013)


I close on a more positive note: examples of those who “own the results” and do not dispute them.

SPORTS – “the scoreboard doesn’t lie”

2013: Broncos fans couldn’t believe it, but the scoreboard doesn’t lie. The Ravens’ Joe Flacco’s threw a bomb down the right sideline … game tied. Then OT. Final score 35-28.
2014: Bronco fans couldn’t believe it. The game felt over by half-time.  But the scoreboard doesn’t lie. Seattle 43, Denver 8.

In sports players are expected to own the score, not to whine about bad breaks and refs and what ifs.  Yes, there are lucky bounces; a penalty that should/should not have been called; what if so-and-so hadn’t been hurt ….  But it is bad form—we call it lousy sportsmanship—not to swallow hard over a loss and accept the final score.  No whining.

Educators might adopt a similar approach.  Too many, in my view, will find the analogy absurd.  They insist: “—but our scoreboard does lie.”  Well, sure, there are plenty of legitimate questions about the details of the state’s School Performance Framework (such as the percentage for growth over achievement), or the degree to which socio-economic factors are taken into account … We have reason to wonder about the methodology of the state’s new Accountability Act and how one district or school is or is not “on the clock” of year 3 or 4 …. No one would say it’s perfect.

But it reflects poorly on us when the whining becomes a substitute for acknowledging the facts.  

When denial replaces acceptance of what is so clear: that our school or our district is not performing well.

We would do well to be “better sports” about what the scoreboard tells us.  Take our lumps, see what we can learn from the bad news, and determine to get better.

LEADERSHIP IN ANOTHER STATE – “… the data don’t lie.’

I will close with the words from the former head of K-12 education in ANOTHER STATE, reflecting an attitude that denies little—that displays an exemplary honesty about the challenges before us. As you read the following, please guess the name of the state redacted here:

However, doing well isn't good enough. While we in xxxxx appreciate the outstanding performance achieved by our students and educators, we have been sharply focused on the sad story our outstanding averages conceal. We have deep, persistent achievement gaps, larger than in most other states. Even though we are gradually closing these gaps and have raised achievement levels so that our lowest performers now surpass low performers elsewhere, the progress is far too slow. Too many students in xxxxx, in spite of our high averages, are unable to enjoy the advantages of a high-quality education. Caught in that achievement gap are low-income students, English-language learners, students with disabilities, and students of color.

Often touted as the number one state in the country for its public education system, Massachusetts could be guilty of complacency and pride.   To his credit, though, that is exactly not what we hear from the state’s former secretary of education, Paul Reveille, in his Commentary in Education Week, “Seize the Moment to Design Schools That Close Gaps,” June 4, 2013.  No denial of where the state falls short; instead, admitting hard truths.  (Perhaps there’s some truth in the notion that, the healthier we are, the more willing we are to see our failures.)  Reveille went on to speak of the “notable exceptions of individuals and schools defying the odds,” but added:

… We have not been able to scale up their success. The exceptions have not proven a new rule, though some practices have shown promise. The gaps, on average, persist. After 20 years of school reform experience, the data don’t lie.

The Colorado Department of Education has been known to look to Massachusetts as a model before (see our Race to the Top application, where we used Massachusetts NAEP scores as our model). Here is a case where we might do well to adopt Reveille’s honesty.  No exaggerations of how great the progress.  and, when we see no progress at all (yes, stay hopeful), but “Confront the Brutal Facts.”

Another View, a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper, Jr., represents his own opinion and is not intended to represent the view of any organization he is associated with.     Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225 /


Sheridan in denial - (Methinks he doth protest too much)

We saw a telling example last winter of a district fighting the facts when Sheridan asked the Colorado State Board of Education to raise its accreditation rating from Priority Improvement to Improvement.  Astonishing, really, to claim—in spite of some of the data below—that “the district should serve as a model” on improving graduation rates, “that Sheridan continues to lead on these issues.”  Really?
“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan
It has come to this—a district with Sheridan’s record protesting the idea that the state—how mean! how unfair!—might dare to “suggest district efforts should be focused on improving the graduation rate....”

The state board, wisely, denied Sheridan’s request.

On-time (4-year) graduation rate*

# students
# graduates
Graduation rate
Sheridan High School
SOAR Academy (an Alternative Education Campus)
Sheridan District – TOTAL

Graduation rate

5 metro area districts

Adams 14

From Superintendent Mike Clough’s “Position Statement – Accreditation Appeal,” Feb 13, 2014.

An excerpt from the section under the heading: GRADUATION AND DROPOUT RATES

The state’s rating of Sheridan School District 2 as “Accredited with Priority Improvement Plan” is based upon a technical application of the district’s graduation rate.  The rating is not an accurate portrayal of the district’s success and the ongoing pursuit of further education for all students.
… The district is imploring the State Board of Education to look at the data with a different lens—one that trumpets success for students and does not penalize a small district for successful, longstanding programs that afford students a solid foundation for post-secondary and work-force readiness….

A rating of “Priority Improvement Plan” suggests district efforts should be focused on improving the graduation rate or lowering the dropout rate when, in fact, the district should serve as a model for both.    

In fact,  if we turn to the most recent data available, it is easy to   see that Sheridan continues to lead on these issues, not lag. (

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