WHO CARES ABOUT SCHOOLS: Who cares about facts?


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.

...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.
Is Ozimek's basic claim true? On average, do charter schools “do better [than traditional public schools]...for poor students and black students?”

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


  1. The error Bob points out is important in its own right, but it doesn't invalidate the point being made, namely that the superior performance of charter schools is not due to their students being wealthier than public school students.

    Restate it correctly:
    "The charter sectors’ ability to do better for non-wealthy students and black students is important given that they disproportionately serve them....53% of charter students are on free or reduced price lunch compared 48% for public schools."

    1. There is a 5% difference. That may be within sampling error for whatever studies this stat was based on. It isn't a very large difference. It could be true only for one year and not others. It is too slight a difference to base a strong conclusion on, such as that charter schools disproportionately serve any group of students.

    2. You would agree David both that it's stunning half of the minor children in this country live in households that are below, at, or at no more than 2 X the poverty level for income. Is it then your conclusion the number of these households indicates that there's an awful lot of slacking among the parents and guardians of children in this country given the abundance of economic opportunity you would insist is available to anyone living in America? Or would you argue that in a well functioning capitalist economy you would expect that a large percentage of parents of minor children would be struggling- at least if they didn't have the sense to put off parenting until they were approaching middle age?

      And would agree that in drawing conclusions from the academic performance of grade-schoolers in households within that poverty to 2 X poverty income spectrum it would be necessary to break out the data further to determine if students living in households at or below the poverty level were attending charter schools in the same percentage that they were attending public schools?

    3. The wealth disproportion does seem to be quite small.

      Another factor that may have explanatory power in which David in Cal might be (un)interested: self-selection by unusually motivated students and families.

    4. 3:10 and 1:23 -- yes, I agree that the difference of 5% is too small to be significant.

      CMike -- I think it's stunning, but in the opposite direction. That is, I think it's stunning that free or reduced price meals are provided to almost 50% of students, because most of them don't need this benefit. Only a very small percentage of students can't afford to make a sandwich.

    5. "Only a very small percentage of students can't afford to make a sandwich."

      Only a very small percentage of what Dinky claims is a fact is not pulled out of his a**.

      FTFY - you're welcome.

    6. Just odd David that you're so concerned about minor children receiving lunches their parents did not pay for out of pocket. I wonder if it's the cost of any associated inefficiency under such an arrangement that has you so upset or if you think it's morally ruinous for any child to get a "free lunch" because it gets in the way of the lesson they should be learning the hard way from an early age that it's dog eat dog in a capitalist society.

    7. There are several reasons why I don't like the school lunch program:
      1. It wastes money that could be spent in areas of true need.
      2. It gives federal bureaucrats a lever to control local schools, which IMHO leads to worse education.
      3. The school lunch program is built on a lie -- namely the lie that the country has lots and lots of starving children.

    8. (1) As for the school lunch program wasting money that could be better spent "in areas of true need," I'm still waiting for you to name one area the government should be spending more money on. Or are you suggesting the wealthy would be meeting these "true needs" through private charity if and only if they were to find themselves further awash in cash from the lighter tax burden they would face if it wasn't for budget busting federal spending on school lunch programs?

      (2) Your "humble opinion" that central government input necessarily leads to worse educational results than a system run exclusively by thousands of local authorities acting entirely autonomously (sans state government input also?) and financed exclusively by locally generated revenues can only be based on ideological prejudice.

      (3) I would think you would understand there's a difference between being in a state of starvation as opposed to frequently being hungry to the point of distraction, a problem the school meal programs are intended to alleviate. When Hugo's Jean Valjean contemplates on why he stole that loaf of bread he admits to himself that his nieces and nephews were only hungry, not actually starving as even in early 19th century France peasants were rarely dying from a flat out lack of calories. There's more than a whiff of Javert about you on the whole subject of the school lunch program David. Mitt's designated 47% have you in a low grade rage all the time.

    9. CMike
      1 Infrastructure is one that needs more government spending IMHO

      2. Please do not exaggerate what I wrote by adding the word "exclusively". I believe federal efforts to help local education do more harm than good, because I saw it first hand when my daughters were in school.

      3. By and large poor children are not in a state of hunger. On the contrary, a bigger diet problem is obesity.

      The difference between me and today 's liberals is that the liberals don't want to worry about where the money is coming from. OTOH I understand that the government is out of money. Programs are competing with each other. Money spent on School Lunch will take away from what could be spent on the arts or on other welfare or on climate change, etc.

    10. "I understand that the government is out of money."

      Which is a statement that shows you profoundly Do No Understand anything at all.

      Federal debt interest payments as a percentage of GDP are at 2%, right about where they have been for a very long time and not even close to being problematic.

      The world is quite eager to provide money to the US at near 0% interest rates, hardly the situation that would obtain if markets believed your fantasies about profligate government spending and waste.

      So go sell your shit to someone as uninformed as you are: we're on to you here.

    11. David,

      Noted, you don't think local authorities should have "exclusive" control over grade school curricula, the protocols for measuring achievement, and/or the rules in place to determine who must be allowed to both attend and benefit from a primary and secondary school education. I would be curious as how specific federally imposed requirements meaningfully harmed the grade school experiences of your daughters.

      As to obesity, I agree with you that malady is spreading rampantly among the population even, if not especially, among those receiving school lunch benefits. At the problem's root is the successful marketing of unhealthy foods which are at once cheap, tasty, sating in the short run, and of low nutritional value. Now sure, adults and kids should be able to see through the greedy motives of the conscienceless capitalists who are poisoning the country with these foods but that's why Madison Avenue gets billions of dollars a year to ever more seductively bait the obesity trap that's out there for millions of Americans.

      I'd be happy to hear that both you and your daughters have had the smarts and the financial wherewithal throughout your lives to maintain healthy and pleasing diets. And again, you are correct in suggesting there is an obesity epidemic in this country. However, your remedy for this public health emergency of making the 47% poorer in this way or that is only going to make the problem of empty calorie consumption, and thereby the problem of obesity, worse.

    12. "The difference between me and today 's liberals is that the liberals don't want to worry about where the money is coming from. OTOH I understand that the government is out of money."

      That's why you can never get anyone but liberals to support ongoing war. In DavidinCal's bizarre world.
      BTW, David, you'll aways be a shitty conservative until you learn how to lie better.


    13. Berto -- Yes, in some world, the US could cut its defense spending way, way down, and thus afford lots more social programs. Maybe that would be good policy, maybe not. But, it's not going to happen. First of all, a lot of military spending is pensions, which cannot be avoided. Secondly, for better or for worse, the US is going to continue to maintain a strong military.

      Here's what's I predict is going to happen in the coming years. Social and environmental programs will be cut, because there's not enough money. But, liberals will find ways to blame the cuts on conservatives.

    14. "...because there's not enough money."

      Amazing. You really aren't just pretending to be stupid.

    15. Here's what's I predict is going to happen in the coming years. Social and environmental programs will be cut, because supporters of these programs don't have the deep pockets to buy politicians like the defense contractors do.

      Fixed for reality.

    16. morally ruinous for any child to get a "free lunch" because it gets in the way of the lesson they should be learning the hard way from an early age that it's dog eat dog in a capitalist society.

      No it is morally ruinous for a kid to observe his negligent parents letting a public school provide his lunch instead of him observing his parents doing it, learning the lesson that "parents, not the state, should provide for their children."

    17. This comment has been removed by the author.

    18. You're going with school lunch programs are "morally ruinous," now how did I guess that?

      Mine is the way of the Lord

      Those who follow the path of the righteous
      Shall have their reward
      And if they fall as Lucifer fell
      The flames
      The sword!

      In your multitudes
      Scarce to be counted
      Filling the darkness
      With order and light
      You are the sentinels
      Silent and sure
      Keeping watch in the night
      Keeping watch in the night

      You know your place in the sky
      You hold your course and your aim
      And each in your season
      Returns and returns
      And is always the same
      And if you fall as Lucifer fell
      You fall in flames!

      And so it must be
      For so it is written
      On the doorway to paradise
      That those who falter and those who fall
      Must pay the price!

      (Sounds at the end there like it was an audience full of libertarians and their fellow traveling Calvinists.)

  2. From a Mother Jones commenter addressing the same cite:

    Also, poor use of statistics. It isn't true, or even close to true, that 48 percent of public school students come from families below the federal poverty line. That's the percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, eligibility for which cuts off at about double the poverty line.

    1. So? Somerby said commenters got to this point after a while.

  3. Worth reading about how we measure poverty in the US.


    1. Yes thanks for the link, I hadn't realized David Cay Johnston was running columns there:

      QUOTE I have taken special interest in this data as a resident of Rochester....

      I know the Rochester data well because my wife, Jennifer Leonard, is the CEO and president of the local community foundation....

      Among cities its size, Rochester has the second-highest poverty rate for those with college degrees and advanced degrees — likely an indication of the collapse of Kodak and other traditionally well-paying employers in the area.

      “We’re finding a growing problem with people who earned college degrees and graduate degrees falling into poverty because they cannot get work,” Hoopes Halpin said.

      This gives the lie to claims by social conservatives (including some who commented at other websites on my column last week) who assert that poverty is overwhelmingly the natural product of misbehavior such as dropping out of school, abusing drugs, having children out of wedlock and laziness.

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