Lies, Darned Lies And Statistics

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Over the last few years, chambers of commerce have taken a more active role in public education. Some of their efforts have been applauded, while others seem to indicate an organization in search of a mission. It begs the question: what is a chamber of commerce? The American Chamber of Commerce Executives defined a chamber of commerce as “an organization of businesses seeking to further their collective interests, while advancing their community, region, state or nation.” 

That seems simple enough. Then they added, “While most chambers work closely with government, they are not part of government, although many consider the process of appropriately influencing elected/appointed officials to be one of their most important functions.”

So, in essence, they are a lobbying organization that functions to further their collective interests, presumably business interests. That sounds a lot like our organization, Professional Educators of Tennessee, with the one exception: we only advocate on behalf of public education.  

In 2007, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released the report: Leaders and Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on Education Effectiveness. In this report Tennessee received an “F” for “Academic Achievement of Low Income and Minority Students,” “Truth in Advertising about Student Proficiency,” and “Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness.” Policymakers in Tennessee have called for specific education reforms ever since. We have touted this now seven year old report for the reason to enact reforms of every nature in our public education system, yet nobody has ever once questioned why we are following this specific report to change our state education system.  

Looking the categories that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce considered, they are all areas our state should analyze regularly: academic achievement, academic achievement of low-income and minority students, return on investment, truth in advertising about student proficiency, rigor of standards, postsecondary and workforce readiness, 21st century teaching force, flexibility in management and policy, and data quality. However, was this report the right measuring tool for Tennessee? By the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s own admission, they did not conduct new research. Instead they reported that they “organized and analyzed existing evidence to inform and promote reform efforts across the nation.”  

Therein lies the rub. The entire paper was a marketing piece by a business interest group to promote specific educational reforms. Certainly many changes in Tennessee were and are still needed. However, policymakers must ask themselves if the changes we have made were right for our children and if reforms were enacted for the right reasons.

Another consideration is that some researchers may purposely distort the statistics. As Mark Twain wrote, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” One must wonder which of these the US Chamber of Commerce relied on. Our data quality also was awarded a “B” in the 2007 report. It is not clear how we can score so high on data quality, and yet score an F in “Truth in Advertising” regarding student proficiency. If the data is there, doesn’t that tell the story?  

Why is the “Truth in Advertising” score discussed more often than the “Academic Achievement of Low-Income and Minority Students” score? Certainly the academic achievement of our most marginalized children has a higher significance than some formula utilized to determine the accuracy of our definition of “proficient.” And in calling our cut scores into question, were they calling state leaders liars? If so, which ones? Why didn’t they specifically name responsible parties at that time?

Additionally, grading on postsecondary and workforce readiness was tied to on-time high school graduation and college entrance rates. This area had already been addressed in the Tennessee Diploma Project in 2009, prior to the Federal Race to the Top grant being awarded to Tennessee. People going into college today may well be less prepared than those of an earlier generation, or acceptance rates may be higher in other states. Let’s also temper these scores with the fact that not every graduate desires to go to college, and not every job requires a college degree.

We must also consider the fact that policy changes in one area most certainly can impact or necessitate changes in the other areas. For example, our teaching force scored a “B.” In our frenzied effort to enact reforms, many educators are retiring or leaving the profession because of some specific reforms directed at them, namely tenure reform, licensure, teacher salary changes and teacher evaluations. Will that diminish the quality of our 21st century teaching force?  

As a Chamber of Commerce member, our organization would suggest the U.S. Chamber advocate for a reduced role by the federal government in public education. Directing education policy from Washington can create unintentional consequences, not to mention that states and local districts can be overwhelmed with compliance requirements created by federal programs, rules, and regulations. This takes away time and resources from our local schools and educators.

Stakeholders and policymakers should look at the data in their state or district for themselves. If the U.S. Chamber of Commerce really wants to make an impact for public education, we recommend that they include actual educators and stakeholders in that discussion. We would also advise a different approach to assigning grades to states based on an effort to inform and promote reform efforts. And policymakers should certainly consider the value and impetus behind such efforts in any single research study.   

J.C. Bowman, Samantha Bates

J.C. Bowman is the executive director and Samantha Bates is the director of Member Services of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Brentwood, Tenn.

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