Part 3—The case of the relevant percentage which didn't appear: We feel almost totally certain!
We feel quite sure that Melinda Anderson isn't a "con man," to cite the term from Maria Konnikova's featured essay in last weekend's Sunday Review.
That said, we felt we encountered a bit of a con when we fact-checked Anderson's recent report for The Atlantic, a well-known publication which may perhaps, at certain times, tell us the stories we like.
Anderson's report seemed to stress the "staggering," "astounding" frequency with which preschoolers are getting suspended, especially black preschoolers.
Those are important claims. But uh-oh! Within Anderson's opening paragraphs, we thought we possibly might have detected "a false spot in the narrative" (to use a term from Konnikova's piece). In a familiar, tiring act, we proceeded to check it out.
Below, we'll show you what we found. First, let's describe where the "false spot" seemed to occur.
Right from the start, Anderson's piece seemed to stress the frequency of preschool suspensions. This is the way her report began, alarming headlines included:
ANDERSON (12/7/15): Why Are So Many Preschoolers Getting Suspended? / The frequency of punishment has a troubling racial skewIt sounded familiar, and bad. The award-winning Powell had two preschoolers, ages 3 and 4. They were suspended from preschool eight times in the course of one year.
Tunette Powell travels across the country counseling families and mentoring youth. An award-winning motivational speaker and author, her professional work in the education field ranges from training nonprofit leaders to consulting for colleges and universities. But none of Powell’s career-related skills could prepare her for the frustration and helplessness of seeing her two sons suspended from preschool, which she pegged to overly harsh and racially biased discipline. In a July 2014 Washington Post opinion piece that gained national attention, Powell relates how her boys—ages 3 and 4—were suspended from their Omaha preschool program eight times total in one year. Once published, the essay resonated with readers nationwide. “So many parents reached out [to me]...a lot of black mothers” who shared her experience with excessive suspensions, said Powell. “We live in a time when we just say, ‘Suspend them, get rid of them.’”
Powell told her story in the Washington Post. When she did, the story resonated. “We live in a time when we just say, ‘Suspend them, get rid of them,’ ” the award-winning author says. According to Anderson, it seems that this is especially true in the case of black preschoolers.
It sounded familiar, and it sounded bad. For all we know, it actually may be bad. But as Anderson continued, we thought we may have spotted a slightly bogus note.
In the passage shown below, Anderson seems to describe the sweep of preschool suspensions. Those eight suspensions of Powell's two kids were not an anomaly, she says.
It sounds familiar, and it sounds bad—but let us pose a question. As Anderson tells this "astounding" story, can you spot the missing percentage, the percentage that doesn't appear?
ANDERSON (continuing directly): A glance at news headlines confirms that Powell and her sons are not an anomaly. From a 3-year-old suspended for too many toileting mishaps to a 4-year-old booted out of school for kicking off his shoes and crying, toddlers are racking up punishments that leave many parents and child experts bewildered. Overall the rise in school suspensions and disproportionate impact on youth of color has triggered a flurry of interest from activists and high-ranking government officials, and for good reason: A February 2015 report from UCLA's Civil Rights Project examined out-of-school suspension data for every school district in the country and found that nearly 3.5 million children—about six out of every 100 public school students—were suspended at least once during the 2011-12 school year, with close to half of those (1.55 million) suspended multiple times.Does that passage say what we think it says? Here's what we think it says:
But for some more astounding than these discipline statistics were the thousands of the nation’s youngest learners—nearly 8,000 preschoolers— suspended from school in the same year, often for relatively minor disruptions and misbehaviors. For researchers and educators immersed in this work, why preschoolers are put out of school and the entrenched racial disparity seems most closely tied to reasons such as teacher bias and children living in poverty whose hitting, biting, and pinching is frequently labeled misconduct rather than developmental delays.
In the first of those two paragraphs, Anderson seems to say that six percent of public school students got suspended at least once during the 2011-12 school year.
(What grades does that include? Anderson doesn't make that clear. Let's continue.)
In the second of those two paragraphs, it seems to say that "some" people find the statistics from preschool "more astounding" than that. It then says that "nearly 8000" preschoolers got suspended in that year for "developmental delays," which may have included hitting and biting.
(Presumably, that means the biting of other preschoolers. Whatever! Kids are resilient!)
At this point, we thought we might have spotted a slightly puzzling note. Fewer than 8000 preschoolers got suspended last year? Given the size of the country, that didn't necessarily seem like a gigantic number.
We also noted that no percentage was supplied at this point. Six percent of public school students got suspended in the school year in question. What percentage of preschoolers met the same fate?
Anderson didn't say! Let's tease out the record:
Fewer than 8000 preschoolers got suspended. But was that a lot or a little? "Some" think it's "astounding," Anderson seemed to say.
We decided to click her link, then keep searching from there. When we did, to quote Sonny and Brownie, we felt we may have got fooled.
Here are the fuller numbers:
From her link, we learned that Anderson is referring to a report by "the Education Department's civil rights arm." According to a "snapshot" from that report, we learned that there were "over 1 million preschool students" that year.
Given the murky language of the snapshot, it isn't entirely clear how many preschoolers got suspended that year. It may have been roughly 7500 in all, with roughly 2500 suspended more than once. Or it may have been roughly 5000 in all, with roughly 2500 suspended more than once.
We'll guess the larger number is right. If we wanted to waste more time clicking, scrolling and clicking, we could probably puzzle it out.
We'll assume the larger number is right, although it could be wrong. If so, then roughly 3/4 of one percent of preschoolers got suspended at some point that year.
One quarter of one percent of preschoolers got suspended more than once. That is well under one percent. Written a different way, it's 0.25 percent. It's one in every 400 preschoolers.
One in every 400 preschoolers got suspended more than once that year. Fewer than one percent got suspended at all.
Was that a lot or a little? That's a matter of judgment. But it's massively smaller than the six percent figure we were given in paragraph 2, after which we seemed to be told that the statistics for preschool were even "more astounding."
Why was less relevant, larger percentage provided while the more relevant, smaller percentage was withheld? A less generous person might see that as a tiny bit of a con.
Incomparably, we won't do that. That said, we thought we'd encountered the kind of "false note" referred to by Konnikova in her piece about otherwise intelligent people who somehow fall for con men. And sure enough! When we researched that apparent false note, we almost felt that we'd maybe perhaps been possibly slightly conned.
Let's note a related point. Based upon those official statistics, the experience of that award-winning author was, in fact, gigantically anomalous. Her two preschoolers got suspended eight times in one year? Based on the data in Anderson's source, that experience isn't just an anomaly. It seems to border on the statistically impossible.
At this point, we're going to borrow from Bob Dylan's award-winning song, Talkin' World War III Blues. We used to think that we could trust presentations in publications like The Atlantic. But "time passed, and now it seems everybody's having them dreams!"
More specifically, time passed, and now it seems that we encounter "false notes" of this type all the time. With great frequency, we possibly feel a tiny bit conned after we check them out. We get that feeling all over the expanding organs of liberal cable and the liberal web. We don't think it speaks especially well of our tribal leaders.
We've also gotten that feeling on many pages of a recent, important book—Ta'Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, a superb memoir tied to a deeply flawed collection of analyses. That said, we liberals seem to love ignoring "false notes" of this type, and we seem to love the pleasing, simplified stories such indolence provides.
Why do otherwise intelligent people tend to overlook "false notes" in certain types of stories? In a slightly different context, Maria Konnikova tried to answer that question in her piece in the Sunday Review.
Tomorrow, we'll return to her account, and we'll float an example from Coates.
Tomorrow: "Caught up in a powerful story, we become blind to inconsistencies that seem glaring in retrospect"
The second part of the claim: Are black preschoolers treated unfairly? That is a very important question.
It's a question you'll never see discussed on corporate liberal TV, where smiling, corporate-selected liberals are being paid millions of dollars.
We'll suggest you review what Anderson wrote. As you do, keep this in mind—we seem to be talking about a rather small number of kids.