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Volume IV, Number 9, October, 2006

The Tinkerbell Effect:
The New Science of Wishful Thinking


"Do you believe in fairies?" asked Peter.

Click here to see Tinkerbell.

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)


The United States is being drawn down dangerous pathways by leaders who substitute wishful thinking for sound policy analysis and fact gathering. Rather than approach issues like air pollution with sound scientific inquiry, they apply the new science of wishful thinking, substituting bogus science for the real thing. This kind of decision-making is called The Tinkerbell Effect. If you wish hard enough for something to come true, this theory suggests you will get your wish.

Sadly, this kind of thinking has warped policy in a dozen areas ranging from educational policy and air quality to the war in Iraq and the provision of disaster relief following Hurricane Katrina.

What me worry?

"I don't read the news."

"I certainly don't read bad news. Why should I?"

"Life is great. Things are going great."

State of Denial, a new book by Bob Woodward, paints a sorry picture of Bush policy-making as bad news from Iraq was ignored because it conflicted with leaders' wishes. Faith and ideology kept trumping reality. A wish and a prayer! This startling exposé raises questions about the Administration's approach to all policy areas ranging from Global Warming and disaster relief to NCLB/Helter-Skelter and educational reform. (Order State of Denial from Amazon)

NCLB - Mission Accomplished?

Despite disappointing results, the huge number of school failures and flat test scores, the President has called for an extension of this floundering experiment to high schools. He even requested a huge fund to launch charter schools for disadvantaged students right after his Ed Department issued a report showing that such charter schools were performing below public counterparts. (Note "Study of Test Scores Finds Charter Schools Lagging" New York Times August 23, 2006.)

The only thing missing from his educational version of "Mission Accomplished" was the aircraft carrier and the flight jacket.

"Don't bother my mind with facts!" is the operating code.

The New Science of Wishful Thinking: The Tinkerbell Effect

If you want the war in Iraq to be a success, you ignore bad news and substitute optimistic comments. While the casualties and violence worsen, you tell everyone that things are going really well. If you believe in fairies . . .

If you wish freedom to flourish in Iraq, you ignore the sectarian fighting and suppression of free speech. You tell the world Iraq is an example to imitate. If you believe in fairies . . .

If you want to impose NCLB and high stakes testing on schools, you ignore the drop out rates, the huge number of minority students excluded from school counts (two million) and the scandal at Reading First. You turn a blind eye on results like the NAEP tests showing that many states have falsified the appearance of progress by using easy tests. If you believe in fairies . . .

So-Called Science-Based Reading

One of the most dramatic examples of the TinkerBell Effect is the pushing of various reading programs by the Ed Department and the recently departed Director of Reading First.

Even though the law prohibits endorsement of particular programs by the Ed Department, it is clear from his emails that Chris Doherty did just that, pushing for a program called Direct Instruction and calling proponents of other programs "dirt bags."

Secretary Spellings agreed that his tone was wrong but argued that it was right to steer schools toward programs that were "scientifically based."

If you believe in fairies . . .

Funny that Chris Doherty had used Direct Instruction in Baltimore without achieving good results prior to becoming Director of Reading First. As manager of a grant program funded by the Abell Foundation, he tried this approach to reading in some 18 elementary schools, but they had to admit defeat after five years. His science proved impotent in the face of reality, like expecting fairies to improve reading scores.

Despite bold promises and assurances to the community and the families, the so-called research-based Direct Instruction program did not work very well for Mr. Doherty or the children and schools entrusted to his care and guidance. Mr. Doherty failed to show what would now be called AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) in these 15 schools. After five years, the Abell Foundation had to admit defeat:

Beginning with six pilot schools and eventually expanding to 18, implementation proved extremely difficult, for the same reasons that plague most school reform efforts: high teacher turnover, constant external demands that distract schools from focusing on instruction, weak commitment by school leadership, and the often intractable social and academic deficits typically found in children raised in poverty. Though there were some bright spots, all of these factors led to only incremental progress in student achievement in the project's first four years.

Source: http://www.abell.org/abellprograms/baltimore.html

This lack of success in Baltimore did not stand in the way of Mr. Doherty as he loaded many decision-making panels with D.I. proponents and launched his own brand of war on reading programs that did not match his preferences. The good guys vs. the dirtbags? If you believe in fairies . . .

The Science of Wishful Thinking is Bogus Science

The science used to steer schools toward particular products and reading strategies is as reliable as the science used to deny global warming. It is fuzzy science.

Because some products are shown to work in some schools when students are tested on tests created by the same book publishers, the claim is made that we can be sure they will work in new settings and schools. If that were true, we'd have far fewer non-readers in this nation, since these claims have been pressed for decades. If the claims were true, Chris Doherty would have seen progress in Baltimore. If the claims were true, we'd be seeing better results from NCLB/Helter-Skelter.

Note the article, "Fuzzy Math, Fuzzy Reading and Fuzzy Science" in the April 2003 issue of FNO.

What's wrong with the science?

These industry funded studies usually prove nothing more than association rather than cause.

  • They usually violate basic rules required to prove cause and effect.
  • They rarely use random control groups.
  • They usually test with tests that match the program and have little ability to predict results on true tests of reading ability.
  • They usually measure lower level skills and ignore the most challenging aspects of reading comprehension.
  • They usually measure short term gains and ignore issues of sustained progress.
  • They often suffer from conflict of interest.
  • They usually exclude from findings schools and locations where the products performed poorly.
  • They suffer from rampant "cherry-picking" - the selection of results that cast favorable light on products.

Believing these studies is like accepting the scientific claims of cigarette companies who protested for decades that there was no real link between smoking and cancer.

Believing these studies is like accepting the scientific claims of drug companies who claimed for years that there was no real danger to taking various pills or urged women to take hormonal supplements because it would lower their risks.

If you believe this brand of science, you should buy land at sea level as well as view lots in Death Valley, vials of snake oil and shares in the Brooklyn Bridge. We are seeing pseudo-science employed to push bad policies and dupe unsuspecting citizens. The twisting of truth is shameful.

© 2006, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved. This article may be e-mailed to individuals by individuals, but all other duplication, distribution, publication and use is prohibited without first receiving explicit permission. Contact for information.
What can you do to change this law before it does great damage to the schools and children in your state and town?
  1. Subscribe to "No Child Left" to stay informed about efforts to repeal NCLB. Click here.
  2. Speak with the school board members, administrators and teachers in your community to learn how NCLB will change schools and learning in your town.
  3. Start communicating with your Senators and Representatives to let them know you want this law changed to put more emphasis on capacity building and support rather than testing and punishment.
  4. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper expressing your concerns. Illustrate the dangers of this law with specific and compelling examples.
  5. Emphasize concrete alternatives that would do more to improve the futures of disadvantaged children.

A List of ESEA (NCLB) Amendments

1. Fund social programs that impact school readiness so that all children actually enter school ready to learn as the first President Bush promised long ago.

2. Fund capacity building (enhanced teaching and learning) in districts and districts for several years before engaging in punishing labels and reckless choice provisions. Capacity building might mean providing hundreds of hours of training in effective reading strategies, for example. But it does not mean training everybody in a single highly scripted program endorsed by the administration for pseudo-scientific reasons.

3. Devote public money to truly public schools. Be careful not to divert funds to reckless experiments or diploma mills.

4. Fund enough construction of new schools within public systems so parental choice is real.

5. Support informed school choice within public systems.

6. Emphasize rewards and incentives rather than sanctions.

7. Hold all publicly funded schools to standards for performance and quality, whether actually private, charter or truly public. Be careful about simplistic notions of high stakes testing.

8. Fund recruitment and preparation of effective teachers and aides from all racial and economic groups to close the gap between current staffing levels and what is desirable.

9. End the insulting, broad brush assaults on teachers and administrators struggling against difficult challenges.

10. Capitalize on the good research conducted to discover what works best in schools and avoid simplistic panaceas and platitudes imported from the world of business and medicine.

11. Enrich the options available to all children. Forswear tightly scripted, robotic programs and the fast food approaches to school improvement.

12. Build school improvement on a richly defined foundation of alternatives and strategies.

13. Eliminate Trojan horses, hidden agendas and shameful politics from ESEA.

14. Stop using Madison Avenue techniques to hide the harsh realities of so-called compassionate conservatism.