Samuel Clemens once said, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." Of course Mark Twain plagiarized this quote from him and took vast credit.
But the point still remains: Big data about education consumes us, and it’s getting out of hand.
In fact, it’s gotten so nutty that we not only have tremendous amounts of statistical analysis, but we also have meta- analysis where statistics are provided to give us new statistics about competing and corroborating streams of statistics so that we can remain properly—and statistically—well-informed for future statistical analysis.
And I have statistics to prove this!
So how does a reading/literacy person make sense of all this kooky math? I mean every time I see statistics about schools posted by some sort of fancy survey group indubitably populated with PhD types (who love to use words like indubitably), instead of providing answers, their data seems to prompt at least three new questions from me.
In keeping with the spirit of the times, I'm going to provide a few examples which, taken on their own, mean nothing. Taken collectively, well, they also don’t mean all that much, either.
Example A: Here’s some data that says 99.5% of teachers spend their own money on school supplies.
Question 1: Who are the .5% and how come they don’t owe the rest of us some cash?
Question 2: Have I ever seen a district administrator of high rank pony up for a colored Sharpie out of their own wallet?
Question 3: In the print age we bought our students paper and pens. Does this mean in the digital age we’re going to pay for iPads?
Example B: Here’s some data which estimates that by the year 2020, there will be 123 million high-paying, high-skill jobs in America, but only 50 million Americans will be qualified to fill these positions.
Question 1: Is this 83 million American student shortfall something we directly blame our current crop of educators for, or are we going to have to wait until 2020 to actually do the official fingerpointing?
Question 2: Is being a teacher considered a “high-paying, high-skilled job," a “high-skilled job," or “a job you good-for-nuttins” are lucky to even have?
Question 3: Is it comically tragic or tragically comic that Question 2 is so on point?
Example C: Here’s a piece of journalism that says that 90% of Americans said schools should take a role in combating obesity.
Question 1: Does this shirt make me look fat?
Question 2: Shouldn’t schools stay away from conversations about personal liberties and instead focus on the things we want them to teach like religion, sex, and guns?
Question 3: Is Common Core gonna test this?
Example D: Shockingly, these stats point out that over 3 million students drop out of American schools each year.
Question 1: Do they all run for Congress or just the first couple of hundred?
Question 2: If John had a nickel for every kid that dropped out, and Mary was selling lemonade at two dollars per glass, how many brownies could Cindy afford if a train was traveling southeast at 15 knots per metric hour?
Question 3: Wouldn’t an optimist look forward to the fact that 20 years from now there will be 3 million new self-help books authored by self-made millionaires who didn’t need no stinkin’ school?
Example E: According to this piece of data, both 9- and 13-year-olds scored higher in reading and mathematics in 2012 than students their age in the early 1970s. Seventeen-year-olds, however, did not show similar gains.
Question 1: Isn’t this just more proof of why we need to lower the national drinking age to 9?
Question 2: Isn’t this an unfair comparison because in the early 1970s the United States was caught in a quagmire of a war most of its people didn’t even support or know why we’d got into in the first place while in 2012 the… Oh. Uhm. Moving on...
Question 3: Can’t we just combine reading and math into one new category called “readamatics," add both score totals together, and then give ourselves extra credit for doubling our academic ratings in less than an hour?
Here are a few other gems:
- “Democracy is an abuse of statistics.” (Jorge Luis Borges)
- "He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts—for support rather than for illumination." (Andrew Lang)
- “A recent survey of North American males found 42% were overweight, 34% were critically obese, and 8% ate the survey.” (Banksy)
- “If your experiment needs a statistician, you need a better experiment.” (Ernest Rutherford)
And finally, please remember the words of Gregg Easterbrook who said, “ Torture numbers, and they'll confess to anything.”