Part 1—Surprised and not surprised: Yesterday afternoon, we were surprised, and not surprised, by a factual error on Kevin Drum’s site, in a post about charter schools.
The factual error didn’t come from Drum itself. It came in a passage he quoted from a Forbes magazine piece.
Adam Ozimek made the (familiar) factual error in question. Here is the passage in question, as reposted by Drum:
OZIMEK, AS REPOSTED BY DRUM (1/12/15): I would like to propose a better conventional wisdom: “some charter schools appear to do very well, and on average charters do better at educating poor students and black students”. If the same evidence existed for some policy other than charter schools, I believe this would be the conventional wisdom.Is Ozimek's basic claim true? On average, do charter schools “do better [than traditional public schools]...for poor students and black students?”
...The charter sectors’ ability to do better for poor students and black students is important given that they disproportionately serve them....53% of charter students are in poverty compared 48% for public schools. Charters also serve more minority students than public schools: charters are 29% black, while public schools are 16%. So not only do they serve more poor students and black students, but for this group they relatively consistently outperform public schools.
In his post, Drum “passed [that claim] along without comment.” We were struck by the factual error within Ozimek’s post which went mentioned by Drum.
Say what? Can it really be true that 48 percent of public school students “are in poverty?” Hours after Drum’s post appeared, one commenter finally wondered about that remarkable statement:
COMMENTER (1/12/15): Leaving aside the public vs. charter debate, these statistics can't possibly be true, at least on a national level. 48% (nearly half) of public school students are in poverty? Really?As he continued, the commenter explained the reason for his puzzlement.
“According to the National Poverty Center, 22 percent of all children under 18 lived in poverty in 2010,” he correctly noted. “Anybody care to explain what's going on with the 48 percent number?” the commenter later said.
What explains the odd factual claim imbedded in the quoted passage? Presumably, Ozimek was misstating a real statistic.
Presumably, Ozimek was referring to the percentage of public school students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a number which stands at roughly 50 percent. But that is not a measure of poverty. In fact, students are eligible for the federal lunch program if their family’s income is roughly double the federal poverty line.
Ozimek’s piece included a howler; Drum let the error slide. We were surprised, and not surprised, when we saw this familiar error thrown into the discourse again.
Drum is our favorite blogger, in large part because he’s quite smart. For that reason, we were surprised to see him let this familiar error pass without comment.
We weren’t surprised to see the error getting made in the first place. Increasingly, this is the way our discourse works, even on the “liberal” side of the dial.
We don’t know Ozimek’s politics. Those who publish upbeat thoughts about charter schools at Forbes may not be on the liberal side of the aisle.
That said, all sorts of people make the factual error in question. We’ve corrected this howler on several occasions in recent years.
We’ve seen this very basic error made by education reporters at major mainstream publications. On the other hand, it’s a type of error which is becoming more frequent on the “liberal” side of the aisle, as we “liberals” gimmick statistics to drive preferred policy claims.
No, Virginia! It isn’t true that forty-eight percent of public school students are living below the poverty line. It is true that our public discourse is routinely a clownish, underfed mess, with factual errors and technical incompetence driving a range of discussions.
This incompetence is quite widespread in our discussions of public schools. Just consider the front-page report in Sunday’s Washington Post—a report about a local public school which showed “huge gains” in last year’s annual testing.
The front-page report included 1800 words of text and several graphics. It pretends to be a discussion of the practice of “teaching to the test.”
The piece is long, and highly visible. It’s also grossly incompetent on a journalistic basis, from its start to its finish.
How do we discuss public schools? We discuss public schools like this:
The piece was written by a pair of twenty-something reporters; neither reporter has any significant background in education. There is no sign that either reporter possessed even minimal technical competence, or had any real idea what he was talking about.
Beyond that, these reporters write for the Washington Post—and Washington was the location of a recent, high-profile public school cheating scandal. It isn’t just that this pair of reporters seem to have no technical competence. They also duck an obvious question about the score gains at this school—a question which has to be raised any time “huge gains” are recorded in test scores.
(Routinely, the Post avoids this question.)
As we discuss that front-page report, we’ll be asking you to think about the way public schools get discussed in newspapers like the Post. That said, the incompetence and propaganda which drive our discussion of public schools have been enabled, for decades now, by us in the liberal world.
We liberals love to pretend that we care about black kids. In truth, we care about such children when they get shot, and at very few other junctures.
Our national discourse is pitifully weak. We liberals are part of this problem.
Tomorrow: Incompetent right from the start