Executive Perspective

Tell It Like It Is … and Isn’t

by Paul D. Houston, executive director, AASA

Many of us remember the words of the famous sportscaster Howard Cosell, who used to say, “I just tell it like it is.” And he did, often in a most irritating fashion. However, history proved that most of the time Cosell had it right and much of the rest of the world had it wrong.

The most famous case was his defense of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam. At the time most of us thought Ali deserved the vitriol he received for that decision. Cosell did not and defended Ali at his own peril. Now years later we see that many of our national leaders avoided fighting in Vietnam but with much less honesty than that demonstrated by Ali and his defender Cosell. “Telling it like it is” is vital for a free society to work and it is critical in our human exchanges.

In fact, my mother was so taken with that phrase she made it her mantra. I think those who see themselves as purveyors of the honest response can relate to telling it like it is. It is important that no matter what our station in life, international sportscaster, housewife in West Virginia or public school leader, we learn to tell it like it is—to speak with truth and from truth.

Fighting Falsities
But there is another side to the equation as well. For if we are to be truly honest, we must also tell it like it isn’t. By that I mean we have an obligation to challenge those who would promote false pictures of our world—who would knowingly distort reality for their own purposes. We have to point out they are telling it like it isn’t.


For years public education has been victimized by those who are telling it like it isn’t. One of my greatest frustrations when I worked in the field and one of my greatest challenges today is to try to confront the falsehoods and mistruths that come pouring down from the critics and from those who would destroy the system for their own ends.

For true honesty to occur, we must acknowledge our own problems. There is no question that public education faces many challenges. We don’t do an adequate job of educating all our children. In fact, in some situations we greatly shortchange those who need our help the most. In other situations we simply provide our children with an education that is at best boring and at worst deadening. So we have much to do. However, that does not justify the major distortions advanced by our critics.

For years we have had to fight the notion that while schools have been given more and more money, achievement has stayed flat or declined. That is not like it is. Spending for schools has increased but not at the same rate as increases in many other parts of our system—prisons, for example. What never gets stated is that much of our increases went to special education and could not be expected to yield major test result improvements for the broader population. Despite that, there has been a modest improvement in overall scores and when you disaggregate for subgroups (as we should) you find a more dramatic improvement for minority students.

Distorted Claims
Let me give you an example of how this distortion works. We recently saw our own U.S. Department of Education put out one chart showing the increase in spending and a flat test-score record. It was used to justify the need for greater accountability. In fact, the chart mixed apples and oranges, which distorted the increase in spending and the test results.


The irony of the chart for me was that it failed to disaggregate the data (which the accountability model calls for). Had that been done, the chart would have shown a more positive record for schools. Whether this was done because those who put out the chart simply didn’t understand what they were doing or whether there was another agenda afoot, I will leave to your own judgment. The fact is that we have to confront the “brutal facts,” as Jim Collins calls for in his best-seller Good to Great, but we also need to confront brutal fictions.

My point here is not to pick on any one group—there have been hundreds of distortions over the years—but to point out we must be better equipped to rebut the distortions and set the record straight. We must equip ourselves with the information, develop better skills at presenting it and be courageous enough to go out and take on the fight.

For years I have called on school leaders to learn to spin their own information, but that is a tough call because “spinning” has been given such a bad name. You know Bill O’Reilly on his “No Spin Zone” on Fox News berates “spinners.” Never mind that the whole show is one big spin by O’Reilly himself. The fact is that everyone puts his or her own spin on things.

Believe me, those who would destroy public education are spinning their information to create havoc. Don’t you think the truth is worth the same effort? Isn’t it time we learned to tell it like it is? Leadership is about advocating for what you believe in and what is worth the fight.

I learned a poem in high school called “Horatius” about a famous battle in ancient Rome where a small band of fighters saved the day by holding off the enemy until a vital bridge could be destroyed. The 29th stanza says, “Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul, with all the speed ye may; I, with two more to help me, will hold the foe in play. In yon strait path a thousand may well be stopped by three. Now who will stand on either hand and keep the bridge with me?”

It is time for school leaders to stand together to keep the bridge for our children’s future. That’s how it is.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.