The Druids of Data

Final Dumpty

Just five days after we celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence this year, Ulrich Boser, former writer for U.S. News & World Report, the Washington Post Express, and Education Week dropped another document on the unsuspecting American public titled “Return on Educational Investment: 2014–A District-by-District Evaluation of U.S. Educational Productivity.” Published by the Center for American Progress, that bastion of privatization and “alternative certification” for teachers – as well as shill for the Common Core State Standards – the document promises to reveal those districts that spend money properly and those that don’t.

Below you’ll find a “translation” of the document’s claims, caveats, and a brief conclusion. This document cries out for translation, since it is written in corporatese–language designed explicitly to impress and befuddle the public despite a complete lack of substance. But first, a taste of passive-aggressive corporatist self-justification:

  • “For people not deeply familiar with the accounting procedures, this makes it hard to compare spending across districts types.”

We have you covered; we are the Druids of Data, and we will wave entrails over the numbers to be sure their real meaning is revealed to us and us only.

  • Fiscal accountability is central to our public education system, and educators need to spend school dollars well, if they want more school dollars. Looking forward, then, we must ask ourselves: How can we do more with what we have? How can we ensure that each school dollar is well spent? How can we make sure all education funds work for students?”

We care about money above all else. If you do what you are told, you might get a few more bucks. Just make sure you are focusing on standardized tests, because we don’t have anything else that makes numbers that can be propped up next to a cost statement. That’s how we make sure that public education serves a corporatist agenda instead of equipping citizens to act effectively as members of a democratic society…

Claims

  • “…effective organizational change can only be achieved by using data, setting goals, and thoughtfully implementing incentive and consequence programs and processes to boost outcomes.”

We want carrots and sticks to force you lazy educators to increase test scores.

  • “Policymakers should develop funding policies that direct money to students based on their needs.”

We will fund only those things that increase test scores, because numbers always trump professional judgment in our book.

  • “The Common Core State Standards Initiative provides an example of how states can work together to create a stronger, more innovative education system.”

We drank the entire keg of Kool-Aid Bill Gates and his cronies brewed. We have no evidence to show that the CCSS “strengthens” education or makes it more innovative. You are supposed to simply accept this untested, unproven statement and the system it misrepresents. Okay?

  • “…education leaders and stakeholders could create a common chart of accounts—a type of budget dictionary—as well as set out best practices when it comes to linking fiscal data to other databases.”

Let’s match up money with your test scores because everything needs to have a number attached to it, right?

  • One crucial approach to improving data is providing districts with productivity evaluations. “

Our numbers are crap, but we publish them publicly in order to embarrass you and bludgeon you into submission anyway.

  • “For this reason, we took significant steps in our report to control for funding disparities among populations of students, yet low-productivity districts are also more likely to enroll students from low-income households.”

Poverty plays a central role in “educational outcomes,” but we prefer to fudge the numbers a bit and then pretend it doesn’t.

  • “…without focused programs and policies, education spending does not always boost test scores.”

You guys might spend money on things that don’t improve test scores, like drama, art, physical fitness, foreign language or other unimportant stuff.

  • “…the issue here is not that any districts are necessarily wasting money on their education efforts. Rather, the issue is that too many districts are spending taxpayer money in ways that do not appear to dramatically boost reading and math scores, and some districts are able to gain similar levels of reading and math achievement with the same population of students but at lower levels of per- student spending.”

We do think you are wasting money if it doesn’t pay off in higher math and reading test scores. Oh, and we also believe that students are interchangeable parts in this numbers game.

Caveats…

  • Currently, many districts lack the capacity to do more with less.”

Just want to get you to lower your guard  before we deliver a series of sucker-punches…

  • We also recognize that there are myriad of other issues plaguing our school finance system—from issues of equity to a simple lack of good data.”

Nothing written in our document should be interpreted as factual or scientific, and we had an attorney add this clause just to make sure you can’t say we thought it could be…

  • “…while we believe that our district-level evaluations rely on the best available methods—and show important results—we caution against making firm conclusions about the ratings of an individual district.”

Our evaluation standards aren’t really useful, but that’s all we got, so use ’em anyway.

  • The literature on productivity is limited, and there is a lot we do not know about the relationship between spending and achievement.”

We have no research basis for believing that what we are talking about is valid.

  • …the link between outcomes and money is not always linear. In other words, even in an efficient school system, the first few dollars spent on a program or school might not have the same effect as subsequent expenditures, with additional dollars not boosting outcomes as much as initial investments.”

We really don’t have any reason to make these comparisons, since they’re useless. We just do it to make public schools look bad.

  • “Our measures also cannot account for all of the variables outside the control of a district…”

We really don’t know what a district that “measures poorly” needs to do any more than they would. We just want to point fingers.

  • The available data are also problematic. State and district data often suffer from weak definitions and questionable reliability.”

We know they say “Garbage in, garbage out,” but we figure we’ve been feeding you garbage for so long that you’d be offended if we didn’t at least try.

  • “Moreover, our study looks only at reading and math test scores, an admittedly very narrow slice of what students need to know to succeed in college and the workplace.”

We put all of our eggs in one basket, (okay, two) which is pretty ridiculous, but that can’t really hurt anyone’s chance to get a rich curriculum experience, can it?

  • Despite these caveats, we believe our evaluations are the best available, given existing traditions and knowledge. We designed our color-rating system to empower the public…”

Despite the fact that our data sucks, and we have no reason to believe the data tells us anything that can be verified, we still intend to abuse public schools with our findings. Aren’t the colors on our chart pretty?

Conclusion

A wonderful master chef, Ulrich Korn, frequently reminded me to focus on the positive during my youthful stint in his kitchen. He interrogated me every time I dined at a three-star restaurant, coffee shop or hot dog stand, asking what was “really good,” maintaining that there was frequently a valuable idea in the humblest eatery. I have applied that lesson in many areas of my life, and I’m pleased to say that after intense study I was able to find just such a nugget in Ulrich Boser’s manifesto:

“We also encourage readers to closely examine the data and our approach to evaluating productivity.”

I heartily agree with those words, and have attempted to do just that.

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014