Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Cherry Picking Data, Tricksters & the Assault on Kansas Public Education

Mark Twain popularized the saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” He was of course referring to the “time-honored tradition” of persuading others to your position through the misrepresentation of data. 

One reason it’s such a time-honored tradition is that anyone can fall into the trap of misrepresentation without realizing it. As Thomas Speidel pointed out in his blog post The Perils of Data Story Telling: The Virtues of Data Documentaries, different stories, sometimes contradictory in nature, can be gleaned from a single dataset. Which is why studies need repeating, and why research should undergo a peer review process. And when interpreting data, one should maximize transparency by revealing any uncertainties, ambiguities or assumptions in one’s argument. Deliberately hiding them, or worse, outright stating they don’t exist, is a dishonest approach at persuasion. For elected officials it’s a violation of the public’s trust.

Governor Brownback, his ultra-conservative allies in the Kansas legislature and the Kansas Policy Institute (KPI) have been fairly bold in their misrepresentation of data, in general and specifically in their attacks on public education. Likely they vary as to how explicitly they recognize their own data misrepresentation, with some believing their misrepresentations to be true and others justifying their actions through their end goals (one being the privatization of public education). In all cases their beliefs and actions are reinforced through self-imposed isolation from those who disagree with them, the removal of legislators who don’t toe the line from key committees being one example of this.

Representative J.R. Claeys (@jrclaeys), district 69, is fond of using twitter for his own sleights of hand. Recently he’s tweeted several misrepresentations under the hashtag #doesntfitthenarrative, cherry-picking data in order to provide the appearance of “poking holes” in the arguments of public education supporters. In one tweet he provides the figure below to justify his assertion that public education is and will receive more funding under the Brownback administration.

First, I should state that I’m not exactly sure what portion of funding these numbers portray, but they don’t represent all of the general fund dollars for the years listed (actual and projected). Second, note that the y-axis doesn’t go to zero, giving the appearance that funding is doubling in the selected time frame. Third, years 2015, 2016 and 2017 are legislative approved, not actual dollars. Based on the state’s revenue to date, those numbers may very well be reduced. Fourth, and most importantly, the dollar amounts aren’t adjusted for inflation and the years were carefully selected to portray an increasing trend. KASB has actually performed a detailed analysis of funding over the years, and the three bullet points below summarizes their findings, presented in the following blog post: Record Breaking Numbers! 
  • In terms of actual dollar amounts, KPI is right; the state general fund amounts for 2015-2017 will be record breakers (but this includes KPERS).
  • Once you accurately adjust the dollar amounts for inflation, you see that the peak spending period in Kansas between 1995 and 2017 was in 2008-2009 (NOT 2017), and that the amount in 2015 is about what it was in 2006-2007.
  • Finally, when you adjust for the population and inflation, the per capita amount for the state general fund in 2015 is actually lower than it was in 1995, and the trend would suggest this per capita decline will continue through 2017.  

In full disclosure, KASB’s analysis wasn’t submitted for external peer review to the best of my knowledge. However I have found, that as an organization, they bend over backwards to present their findings in an impartial manner, focusing on the information itself and minimizing any story telling. But you may read through their extensive analyses and judge for yourself.

In another series of tweets, Representative Claeys pulls data on superintendent payouts from a KPI blog post and portrays the data as an example of excessive administrative salaries:

First, payouts are a onetime expense and do not represent annual superintendent salaries, though Rep. Claeys was clearly trying to create that confusion. The actual salary of the Blue Valley superintendent was less than a half of this payout, based on data obtained from https://t.co/bMpXadp4xD. Second, Rep. Claeys and KPI have chosen an extreme to represent the norm, a classic cherry picking maneuver. The 2014-2015 Blue Valley superintendent’s actual salary of $285,079 was the second highest salary in the state of Kansas out of 285 listed superintendent salaries (Wichita’s being the highest). The 2014-2015 Kansas average superintendent salary was approximately $110,000, with a standard deviation of approximately $37,000. I don’t have the complete payout data, but I’m making the assumption that the payout for Blue Valley’s superintendent is a similar extreme relative to the statewide data. 

In addition, KASB’s report, Long-Term Growth in Instructional and Student Support Employees, states that while there has been an increase in the state’s number of teachers, paraprofessionals and other instructional/student support staff since 1998, there has actually been a decrease in the number of general administration positions (superintendents, clerical staff, etc.). As a state we seem to have done pretty well keeping administration costs low relative to the increasing recognized needs of equitable public education.

Misdirection, misrepresentation, sleight of hand, and Twain’s lies, damned lies and statistics… these are calling cards of the Trickster, a cross-cultural archetypal character sometimes depicted as hero, sometimes villain, sometimes both and sometimes neither. But always a mischievous character surrounded by conflict and confusion, with his/her own self-interests primarily in mind. Tricksters have often been used in myth and literature to teach us what not to do.

With acknowledgements to @RobertLeonard and many others who’ve previously made use of the Trickster analogy in analyses of contemporary society, I see Representative Claeys, Governor Brownback, KPI and other ultra-conservatives/libertarians acting in various capacities as Tricksters. While they may see themselves as heroes, they are the villains from the perspective of public education, cherry picking data, creating straw man arguments, etc., to suit their own agendas. 

Sometimes they assume a Trickster’s personification of the buffoonish clown, as when celebrating meeting projected state revenues after significantly lowering the bar. At other times they’re a more malevolent Trickster, as when manipulating data to support the block grant, moving elections, doing away with teacher due process or threatening to jail educators for distributing material a minority of legislators deem offensive.

The best defense against public officials who’ve violated the public trust through various forms of Trickster misrepresentations is an informed and engaged public (in conjunction with a free press). A public that challenges legislators when they misrepresent data; a public that insists our state leaders engage with those outside their inner circle. But that takes work on our part. It’s not easy being a citizen in a representative democracy. 

We must educate ourselves with regards to basic statistics and data interpretation. We have to stay current with the world around us and talk to our family, friends and neighbors. And then stay in contact with our representatives to keep them honest. Finding the time for this with all of the world’s distractions is difficult, but the quality of our government, and the resulting quality of our lives (now and in the future), correlates directly with the amount of time we’re willing to put into this as citizens. 

Here are two references to start with for the average lay person regarding statistics and data:

And here are two references to start with regards to public education versus privatization:

Read them for yourselves. Look at other sources. Talk to a wide range of people. Then make up your own mind who the Tricksters are. But don’t wait too long to inoculate yourself against their “lies, damned lies and statistics.” The future of Kansas public education hangs in the balance.

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