Data doesn’t explain ‘why’

Tom Dunn - Contributing Columnist

In a recent article, I criticized state politicians for creating educational policies that are based on the myth that schools and schools alone impact literacy skill development in children. I suggested that when a law or policy ignores what we know to be true, it isn’t worth the paper it is written on, yet politicians do it all the time. I wrote that even though we know that children’s literacy skills begin being developed at birth and that the time before a child enters school is vital to his or her development, lawmakers continually create educational laws and policies that ignore this most basic fact.

Another perfect example of ignoring the facts is the school district report card created by the state. For many years now, with the Ohio legislature goading them on, the Ohio Department of Education has created this report card on every public school building and district in Ohio. According to former state superintendent Dr. Richard Ross, the report card is necessary because “…parents and taxpayers deserve transparency so they know how well their schools perform.”

Of course, this is the same Dr. Ross who, as written by Cleveland Plain Dealer writer Patrick O’Donnell on Aug. 27, 2015, secretly helped create the “Youngstown Plan,” which was a clandestine state takeover of the Youngstown Schools. Not only did he do his work in secret, but, according to the article, he told his staff to keep quiet about his work as well. So, apparently selective transparency was what Dr. Ross really believed in.

But, let’s pretend for a moment that he was sincere about the importance of transparency and keeping people informed. The state report card does neither. The millions and millions of dollars the state has spent on this document is akin to pouring our hard-earned tax dollars down a rat hole.

So, why is it a rat hole?

Data gurus will tell you that statistics normally do not prove WHY something happened; they only prove THAT something happened; particularly with respect to human behavior. Because this is true, the state’s school district report card, which primarily uses student scores on state tests to rate schools, can inform the public how well kids in their schools performed on state tests, but it cannot inform the public WHY kids in their schools performed as they did. Yet, proving the “WHY” is exactly what the state tries to do with its ridiculous document. If the students score well, the school is good. If the students do not score so well, the school is poor. Now, isn’t that convenient? Untrue, but convenient.

Using a sports analogy, last year the NBA’s Golden State Warriors set a record for the number of wins in a regular season with seventy-three. This year, as this is being written, they once again have the best record in the NBA, but they are behind their record-setting performance from last year. Why are they behind? Is the coaching not as good? Who knows? Are the teams they are playing better this year? Who knows? Is their team not as talented this year? Who knows? Did the roster moves they made in the off-season disrupt their team chemistry? Who knows? Could it be any one of a thousand other reasons? Sure it could, but who can know for sure?

The reason we don’t know is because data does not prove WHY something has happened; only THAT something has happened. All we really know is that Golden State’s record this year isn’t as good as last year’s, but we cannot definitively say why that is the case. To try to do so would be nothing but conjecture, and critiquing other people’s performance through conjecture is not acceptable.

Likewise, there are a number of factors that contribute to a child’s success or failure. The school may be a factor, but we know it is not the only factor, so for the state to suggest that its report card informs the public of “how well their school is performing” is either ignorant or dishonest. Neither one is good.

The fact is, we don’t know why test scores in a specific school are different from year to year. For example, if the school’s third grade test scores are better this year than last, is it because the teacher did a better job? Who knows? Is it because the principal did a better job? Who knows? If kids did worse on the tests this year, is it because the tests they took this year were harder than last year? Who knows? Is it because the students in third grade are different than the students who were in third grade last year? Who knows? Could it be any one or more of a thousand other reasons? Sure it could, but who knows for sure?

If our political leaders think that a report card is such a good idea, why don’t they create one for themselves? It could measure them on important issues such as crime and unemployment rate in the areas they represent; or on the number of failed businesses; or on the number of drug overdoses that occur in their area; or on the percentage of children living in poverty. But, they do no such thing, and do you know why? Because they know that data tells us THAT something has happened, but it doesn’t prove WHY it has happened. They aren’t about to take the blame for things they don’t completely control, yet that is exactly what they do with their ridiculous school report card.

How’s that for hypocrisy?

Tom Dunn

Contributing Columnist

Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.

Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.