The Lake Wobegon Effect

“And all the children are above average”

The “Lake Wobegon effect” is the human tendency to overestimate one's achievements and capabilities in relation to others”


In the last couple of weeks I have been confronted with the Lake Wobegon effect on three separate occasions when talking about learning, schools and schooling. This effect is the tendency for people to believe that their context or situation is somehow not representative of the average.

The conversation usually goes something like this:

“Yea the American Public School System is really messed up, but the schools here are pretty good”


“yes those statistics are legitimate on a national basis, but they do not reflect what happens in our schools locally”

In thinking about the well intentioned application of the Lake Wobegon effect in my recent conversations I have come to realize that what these people are saying is not that schools here are better than the often dismal statistics presented nationally, but rather the lived experience of these individuals is different. In other words, what they are saying is “yea American Public schools are messed up, but my kids are doing ok”. This insight recognized that kids are resilient and given support structures, often supports outside of school (e.g. socio-economic, family, community, etc.) they can make school work for them.

I find are a couple of really big problems with this phenomenon. The first is that it enables us to reduce our own anxiety to a level where we don’t really have to act on a given problem. It does enable us to feel compassion and empathy for our local teachers, schools and systems that, for the most part, are genuinely trying hard to serve our kids, rather than “those kids”. At the same time it allows us to ignore “those kids” because they are not our kids.

And second, my experience is often the statement is just not true. For example I was told last week by a retired high school Principal that the school drop out rate is much lower in our region than the nationally cited statistic of 8%. ( And while our region has made great gains from the nearly 30% dropout rates of 2008-2010 ( our region still remains well above national rates.

The point is not to bash the already beleaguered public school system, nor is it to blame teachers or students for the service they are or are not receiving. The point is to recognize the fact and choose to do something about it. It may be comforting to believe in the Lake Wobegon effect, but I am not sure it helps our schools or our kids.

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