Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Trap of False Equivalency in the Assault on Kansas Public Education

I found myself in agreement with columnist Steve Rose’s conclusions in his recent Kansas City Star piece Don’t let anti-tax zealots imperil Kansas schools. Towards the end he states that the ultra-conservatives … are willing to plumb the depths and cut to the bone because their priority is tax cutting, not education. They would sacrifice quality education for their crusade.

But according to Mr. Rose he didn’t come to this conclusion based on the differences in the quality of research from opposing sides. He sees KPI’s and KASB’s analyses and interpretations as focused solely on interpreting the data to suit their own positions – neither’s methods or motives are superior or inferior to the other’s.

He instead relies on the Kansas Legislative Research department, a government agency that he sees as a more neutral body than either KPI and KASB. In the article he states that according to Legislative Research, The truth is in the eye of the beholder and it is not provable, one way or the other. You can find statistics to prove either position, and you will gravitate toward the numbers that make your case.

Despite all of this Mr. Rose still comes to his conclusion, it seems, because he thinks that the extent of the tax cuts poses too great a risk to the quality of public education and the future of our children. But to reach that conclusion it would seem that Mr. Rose has made some mental calculations and judgments clearly in line with KASB’s analyses demonstrating that the amount of spending (and how it’s spent) is correlated with student success.

Relative to the Kansas Legislative Research department, he doesn’t provide the actual quote nor the context that it was made within. But it would surprise me if individual Legislative Research analysts truly equate KASB’s and KPI’s quality of analyses and interpretations.

If they do, then both Legislative Research and Mr. Rose have fallen into the trap of false equivalency that we often see in the media. They sometimes feel the need to remain in the “center” of an issue, regardless of the quality of the expertise, data, analyses and/or interpretations on either side. One can objectively analyze multiple sides of an issue and come to a logical conclusion that one side has more validity than the other. When the media attempt to remain completely neutral, despite the data supporting one interpretation over another, they do a disservice to those who consume their information. Per my previous post, it can also support political tricksters in their misrepresentation of data.

In many ways, equating the quality of KASB’s and KPI’s analyses and interpretations in my opinion is about as valid as equating the research and interpretations of climate change scientists vs. deniers, or of evolutionary theorists vs. intelligent design proponents. Here’s one example of this.

In attempting to refute KASB’s recent analyses finding a correlation between funding and student performance (summarized here) KPI took the following actions (summarized here):

  • focused primarily on one narrow measure of student success - NAEP scores (also ACT scores to a smaller degree)
  • didn’t attempt to compare Kansas to similar states 
  • falsely accused KASB of ignoring other variables that impact student success

Contrast this with KASB’s approach that consisted of:

  • inclusion of multiple indicators of student success (graduation rates, NAEP scores, ACT scores, SAT scores and state test scores) for multiple student groups
  • comparisons to a group of states doing better than Kansas as well as a group of states most like Kansas (relative to a series of student population characteristics, adult population characteristics and population distribution characteristics)
  • clearly stating they weren’t statistically proving increased funding results in increased student performance, only showing a correlation

In looking at multiple student groups relative to the student success measures and including the different characteristics to find similar states, KASB built-in multiple variables to consider, from socioeconomic status and special needs to adult education and population density. The following KASB post should make it clear that the organization recognizes the large number of variables (often interacting) that can influence student success. KASB also recognizes that graduation rates and test scores aren’t the only indicators of student success, many of which are difficult to measure but also dependent on adequate funding.

And a significant number of peer reviewed studies have demonstrated a correlation between funding and student success. A 2012 report produced by the Albert Shanker Institute (found here) summarizes the findings from several peer reviewed studies linking student success with the amount of funding (sources are sited).

I will acknowledge that there are discrepancies in how KASB and KPI interpret the NAEP scores relative to funding over time. At this point though I haven’t attempted to review each of these in detail to tease out the source of these discrepancies. But here is where one may also look at both the underlying motivations and the level of expertise involved in both conducting the analyses and making the interpretations.

It’s important to remember that a primary goal of KPI is to significantly reduce government spending and government influence over our lives in general. Their analyses and interpretations are designed to support that goal. And with public education comprising the majority of our state’s budget, it’s always in KPI’s cross-hairs.

In contrast, a primary goal of KASB is the success of students via a strong, equitable education environment, and their analyses and interpretations are designed to support that goal. They are attempting to determine, among other things, what policies, funding amounts and types of spending result in student success, and why. Their interpretations aren’t designed to support increased funding per se, but to provide adequate funding to achieve student success.

In addition, KASB’s interpretations are made by experts in the field of education – experts via academic research experience as well as years of classroom and administrative experience. KPI, however, may partner with individuals having a background in education, but those individuals also typically share KPI’s ideological view of the world.

Yes, KASB is a proponent of public education. But this is in part because as education experts they know the benefits of a strong, equitable public education system, from that of the individual child to society at large.

If I wanted to understand the cost/benefits of building sustainably, I would look at research conducted by professional organizations in the field (USGBC, ASHRAE, IESNA, etc.) as well as peer reviewed research. I would also talk to building owners, facility managers and practitioners who work in the field on a daily basis – architects, engineers, contractors and other specialty consultants. I would do so because these are the experts and the key stakeholders who live the day-to-day. I would not reach out to a political lobbying group that seeks to limit sustainable design requirements (or even guidelines) from showing up in state and municipal codes and standards because they believe in small government.

In order for citizens to be critical consumers of information it is important that the media avoid the trap of false equivalency. They must be objective in their assessment of opposing analyses, interpretations, motivations and expertise. Actual neutrality is not an option. Otherwise we give the tricksters a free pass.

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