Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Why Statistics Sometimes Blow

So I wanted to write about education today, and as I was thinking of ideas, I realized that most of my gripes and writings have dealt with the funding side of education.  I don't want to sound like a broken record, so luckily in my search to find some fresh perspective, I seemed to have stumbled upon a little gem.

Now I want to preface this article with the warning that this is all just pure speculation, and I'm going to use my town--Columbus, OH--to illustrate a point I want to make.

I read this article today that says that about 45% of American children live in school districts that have poverty rates over 20%.  "Shocking!" some might say.  "This is outrageous!" others may exclaim, but I think this is a case where a statistic is taken completely out of context and used to further an asinine goal (go figure, right?).

Let's consider a few things before we start saying that there's not enough money going to schools, or that poverty is the reason our kids are coming out of school as complete dumbasses.

Firstly, let's consider where most children in America live.  My guess is that most children in America live in or very near urban areas.  Columbus is a city of 2 million people.  It's a huge ass city, and there's a shit ton of children here whose residence is considered to be Columbus.  Yes, there are some suburbs, but Columbus alone is home to 2 million people.

As of 2009, Columbus had a poverty rate of about 18%. There are some extremely poor neighborhoods closer to downtown and on the West Side.  Don't go to the Hilltop area and expect a comfortable day.  Be that as it may, there are still some really nice neighborhoods in Columbus.  My friends joke and say that I live in the ghetto, but that's not true.  Sure, my neighborhood might not be the most posh, but I live in a pretty good area on the North End, not far from where I grew up (which is a nice, quiet neighborhood).

So although my friends, family, and I all live very comfortable lives, we still live in a city where some pretty nasty poverty exists, and since things haven't improved much, our poverty rate is probably closer to 20%.  But even with near 20% poverty, if you were to visit Columbus, you probably wouldn't think it's a complete shit hole like Detroit.

So what does this have to do with my argument?  Well, part two of my argument has to do with school district size.  Columbus City School district encompasses the entire damn city, poor neighborhoods and not-poor neighborhoods.  So although my children live in a nicer part of Columbus, they're still part of the statistic that says half of American children are living in poverty stricken cities.

Although my children go to Catholic school, and are receiving a really good education, they're stuck in this statistic.  From this we can speculate that the statistic itself is meaningless, because my guess is that many school districts follow this same pattern, lumping in poor, urban neighborhoods with more well-off neighborhoods.

Of course 45% of children live in school districts where poverty is 20%, because a majority of American children live in cities just like Columbus.  So what?  Why is Northland High School nestled in a fairly well-off neighborhood and fails miserably, while St. Francis De Sales high school is stuck in a slightly worse neighborhood yet churns out very well-educated students who generally go on to be successful in life?

It's not the money, because De Sales is a private Catholic school that is typically less funded than the adequately funded public schools, and where the teachers are paid a third less than their public school counterparts.  If only 18% of Columbus is living in poverty, then why does Columbus City School district only have a 60% graduation rate?

Statistics can be used, twisted, and taken out of context to prove just about anything.  That's why I tend not to take them all as gospel, because there are some factoids out there, like this one, that are complete bullshit once you apply a little thought to it.  In spite of that, people will still use that statistic to prove their point that schools are underfunded, and that because of that our children are failing.  Do you buy that?  I don't.


Silverfiddle said...

You perceptive, Jack. Good job ferreting out the truth behind the data.

Thomas Sowell shows, in "Vision of the Anointed," how one can aggregate or disaggregate a statistic to get the propaganda affect one wants.

Almost always, disaggregating a statistic, as you have done mentally, will reveal a different picture.

Jack Camwell said...

Thanks man. I was sort of worried that my logic was weak on this one.

Jersey McJones said...

Jack, living around a city means you are probably not among a 20% rate. The suburbs and exurbs are pretty well off for the most part. Cities themselves are another matter. I know Columbus well. I spent quite a bit of time there when I was younger (Skyline Chili baby!). It is a university town, first and foremost, hardly exemplary of where most children hail. It is in the inner, old, de-industrialized cities, and in rural areas that poverty is the most prevalent. And it is those rural areas that poverty causes the biggest problem for education - funding. Remember, in America (because we're like friggin' medieval Germany in this way) property values determine the quality of the schools - period. Contrary to what the self-deluded loons on the right believe, the federal government contributes only a tiny fraction of school funding, and most of that is for brick-and-mortar, school lunch and breakfast programs, and special needs accommodation. The states vary from state to statin what they contribute, but it's rarely more than 20%. The remaining 70% or so comes from local property taxes, and if the local residents are poor, so too will be their schools.

It's as simple as that.


Silverfiddle said...

More importantly,

"45% of American children live in school districts that have poverty rates over 20%"

is a fairly meaningless statistic, given that school district size and shapes are so different across the nation.

Jersey McJones said...

Exactly. When it comes to serious discussion about education, it's a rather inane number. That said, it's pathetic in this day an age that this statistic even exists. Poverty self-perpetuating cycle that will only grow unless broad political and cultural engagement can reduce it. We do not have the forces in politics and culture to effectively deal with growing poverty at this time in our history. It may have to grow quite a bit more before the impetus comes to be, and by then it could be too late, and we will begin our long slide into a giant Third World state.


Jack Camwell said...

I live in the city of Columbus. I don't live in the inner city, but that's my locale. I don't live in Worthington, Westerville, or any of the suburbs.

My children live in a city that has a poverty.

The whole point of my post was to say that this statistic, and many statistics, are horse shit.

Jersey McJones said...

Jack, you were projecting Columbus on the nation in general - in exactly the same way that makes that statistic useless. Get it?

Statistics can be like anecdotes, ya' know. ;)

You did make a fair point, but your further extrapolation seemed illogical, without sound math.


Harrison said...

Lies, damned lies, and statistics!

Jack Camwell said...

Of course I realize that Columbus is not indicative of every city in America. And although you say we're a university town, I think you're overstating that quite a bit, especially considering that OSU is right on the cusp of where poverty is at its worst here in Columbus.

There's nothing illogical about what I've said, and I think I've raised some important questions.

Why is a school failing even though it's funding is through the roof and it's in a middle-class neighborhood? Why does a school succeed even though it's spending less per pupil and is in a poorer neighborhood?

I read the other day that the Dublin City Schools (Dublin is a suburb of Columbus) are starting to falter and become shitty, even though Dublin is a very, very rich area.

And suburbs are generally places that don't feel the pangs of poverty, at least around here anyway. Why do you think that Columbus is somehow unique compared to every other large city in America?

Is Columbus all that different from Cinci or Cleveland? I think not (maybe less poor, but that's not really the issue here).

Jersey McJones said...

The point is, Jack, the vast majority of schools in suburban areas, that have some money, are fine. They're good schools. There are anomalies, but they are not targeted infections of some greater disease. They are simply examples of poorly run schools. Shit happens.

Growing up, I had the advantage of attending many different schools. I learned that while funding is extremely important (I first sat in front of an Apple computer in well-funded middle school in 1980), the local cultural attitudes, balance of demographics, physical and political structure of districts, all these things and more play into the success of any particular school. There is no "one size fits all" system on those levels. Even is we had federal universal education, these factors would still be just as important.

There is one good thing about our system, though - anyone can get involved if they make enough fuss about it. (... or is that the bad thing? ;)


Jack Camwell said...

"I learned that while funding is extremely important (I first sat in front of an Apple computer in well-funded middle school in 1980), the local cultural attitudes, balance of demographics, physical and political structure of districts, all these things and more play into the success of any particular school."

That, Jersey, was precisely my point. I might disagree that funding is as important as you think it is, but the fact is that there are other, more powerful forces that determine whether a student is successful.

The kids at De Sales succeed because their parents give a shit. Their parents give a shit because 1. they pay an arm and a leg for their kids to go there, and 2. they care so much about their education that they're willing to make those financial sacrifices.

The statistic presented here means nothing to me, because money does not necessarily = better education. We won't fix American education until we can fix attitudes in American homes.

D Charles QC said...

When I see any statistics I remind myself about a well known joke that comes around every once in a while. David Letterman has used it (at least once).

"Did you hear about the bar-exams? There is good news and bad news. The bad news is that only 20 per cent passed it this year. The good news is that 80 per cent didn't!!!!".

Get the point?