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Trust and transparency


Dear Diane,

The level of trust required for any society to sort of work is an interesting question. Because you are surely right that we cannot literally check out everything we're told in the media. What I tend to do is trust the data on matters about which I have profound ignorance, and be skeptical about what I know well (because I can check it out). But I know there are risks in this survival habit.

So the other thing I do—when I'm beyond my depth—is rely on "my" experts in each field—the folks in each field I've decided think like me, but know more. Every person of power obviously is required to do something like this all the time since they cannot possibly be experts even on every field which they must make decisions about. So they have their staff, who vet them, provide them with abbreviated versions of what they need to know about alongside of who said what. Us more "ordinary" folks, who can't afford our own staff, either pass over a lot of what's going on in the world or rely on some version of the truth, which seems to match our biases.

I'm simplifying things, but I think it goes something like this. Agreed?

If almost "everyone" (that we read) claims that schools once were better, it becomes "common wisdom" and doesn't require a fact-checker (so to speak). I've always been curious when I write about which facts the folks I write for want citations for. It happens when I claim, for example, that schools are actually better than they used to be. Neither is easy to establish, but only the latter requires me to "prove" my case.

If I claimed that there is no industrialized nation on earth that has less social mobility than the U.S., lots of folks would challenge me. So I'd have to dig up the story that I just read on the back pages of, I think, The New York Times. But if, in passing, I said that the U.S. was and remains a nation in which everyone can, rise above his/her origins few would ask for evidence to support such a claim.

So, maybe our search for neutral data on schools won't be easy to establish, Diane. Our friend Chancellor Klein responded to a recent NY Times column (by Samuel G. Freedman, July 4; subscription or fee required) on the overload of teacher paperwork. He once again asserted that things have never been so good. Paperwork is not a dirty word. Teacher morale is high, and turnover is no longer a problem—retention is now at a 90 percent rate. How would I know if his claims are accurate? Or what the data actually means? (Does it mean that in five years, half the new teachers are gone?)

The Washington Monthly, which has sort of my politics, recently noted that conservatives are right about one thing: money for schools doesn't go far to explain success. Evidence? Compare D.C. schools to adjacent Virginia/Maryland district schools. Same (or lower) dollar figures and very different test scores and graduation rates. What's wrong with this evidence? The parents in the adjacent communities spend two or three (at least) times as much on their children's education, in the larger sense of that word, during the 4/5 of their waking hours not spent in school. I've toted it up with my children and grandchildren—what we do for them that provides the backdrop for their superior academic scores, their belief in schooling, etc.

Making sense of the world is tough, and a lot interferes with our "neutrality"—our particular experience, assumptions, etc. This doesn't mean we shouldn't always be searching for some reliable unbeatable truths. But it reminds me why it is that people I respect often reach such different conclusions.

Chancellor Klein—who doesn't perhaps do his own paperwork—undoubtedly believes every word he says. His staff—in addition—probably feed him the data he wants to hear. But I'd like him to turn over the data he's using to reach his sunny conclusions so others can reach their own conclusions. The best we can do—as you said some time ago—is demand transparency.

It's critical even to the discussion of the "achievement gap"—which I want us to discuss soon.



I'm more likely to give credence to statistics when the terms are well defined. "Retention rate" doesn't mean a lot by itself -- as you point out, if 10% of teachers leave each year, you could call it a 90% retention rate, but still means that the average teacher stays less than 7 years.

-- Rachel

Yes! There's not a day goes by that I don't find numerous examples of your point. See the following for example! Who's right? What are they defining differently or is the statistics that they're using differently? I tend to go with those saying what I want to believe, but the other choice is to have to be an expert o everything???? Or believe nothing? Deb

"TEMPE, Ariz and BOULDER, Colo., July 18, 2007 – A new report suggests that state appropriations to support colleges and universities actually result in lower statewide economic growth. This report, published by Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy, has now been independently reviewed for the Think Tank Review Project by Professor José Luis Santos of UCLA, who found the report’s analysis and data to be weak and misleading. He concludes that the report relies on ideology rather than evidence to make its case and that it ignores much evidence contrary to its assertions.

The report, 'Michigan Higher Education: Facts and Fiction,' was authored by Richard Vedder and Matthew Denhart. They argue...that states with greater appropriations for higher education are more likely to have lower economic growth."

To support or not to support higher education (if it leads to ecoomic decline), that is the question.

Sounds like Hall's 1950s book "How to Lie with Statistics," is in need of some clever new chapters---you are well on your way of finishing them in blog form!

I noticed an area of potential common ground when Prof. Meier said, how some wealthy parents are able to provide a "backdrop for [students] superior academic scores, their belief in schooling, etc." This certainly resonates with Prof. Ravitch's concluding paragraph in this months NY Sun article where she writes: "We will continue to misdiagnose our educational needs until we focus on the role of students and their families."

Although, it's unclear what the best fabric for this backdrop is, it is clear that it begins outside of school and often with families (if they exist).

More likely the contents of this fabric will be full of words like holistic health, environment, family values, mores, nourishment, public funding, equality, community, and so forth.

However, I don't really want to comment on the text of your debate, but the context of it.

I in no way mean to dissuade you or come across as ungrateful by saying this, but I find it most unfortunate that these discussions all seem to stem from the fact that the education system is the only universal thing that the public works together on. And that because of this, educators-like-yourselves are left with the weight of the world on your shoulders and the fate of our society.

Its as if some policy wizard misread section 8 of Dewey's "Democracy and Education," the part where he starts off by talking about how "Democracy" is a necessary condition to allow for educational aims to be reached (met? achieved?). That this policy-person went ahead and twisted causalitie's arrows all over the place and decided to create a republic in which taxes are mostly allocated to military spending, priorities are on promoting competition amongst each other in the market, and prerogative after prerogative are formed, while pocket change and minimal attention goes to roads, water, and energy, and then just a smidgeon is left to education and healthcare. What we are left with is something that doesn't at all seem to provide "adequate provision for the reconstruction of social habits and institutions by means of wide stimulation arising from equitably distributed interests."

But I guess some say that that Dewey's democracy is actually Socialism.

Our blindness as a people is unnerving. Reading Dewey, and reading both of your remarks, it just leaves me saddened that this is not at the center of our debates. It leaves me feeling like the whole world is cast in a eary light, like in Claude McKay's Song of the Moon:

"Upon the clothes behind the tenement,
That hang like ghosts suspended from the lines,
Linking each flat to each indifferent,
Incongruous and strange the moonlight shines."

And leaves me wondering, is it the lines that are indifferent or the people in the flats? Why are we left feeling like we are in a power relationship more akin to immigrants in tenements than citizens in a wealthy democracy?

It's a sad thing that our education must rest upon a backdrop of indifference, ignorance, and fear.

But, in a positive light, it is warming to know that you both are actively helping to change the world and that you are able to wrap your heads around a really big picture and go out on a limb and present solutions to such fundamental problems.

But, even more so than the work both of you do, I'm happy you have created this debate page, it is delightful to see the bantor, the friendliness, and the trying to work together --- we need more of this, everywhere! This is what our democracy should be built upon!


Joshua Gay
Brookline, MA

Yes, exactly Joshua! Thanks.

I hope you follow this thread of discussion; hopefully Diane and I will agree. Many of those who criticize families, versus schools, act as though poor parents "care" less, don't "know" any better, etc. I was, in contrast, literally counting up the financial cost that directly or indirectly influenced the education of my kids.

If being advantaged brings no advantages to our kids wouldn't that be odd?

So we need to consider all the ways to make these advantages more publicly available to all children; including a leveler playing field--family resources and power not just being charitable to the have-nots.

This means working together to redress the inequalities that have grown so obscenely in our beloved nation.

But I'm going on about a topic I hope to blog about!!!


Thank you for the debates which I eagerly read and think about.It is comforting to know that we are not alone in trying to work out plans for ALL children.

One of the wonderful things about America is public education..free for all children.It is what is crucial to a democracy and I was touched by Joshua Gay's comments about "this is what our democracy should be built on".(Thanks, Joshua,for bringing in Dewey and the elegant poem) Rarely do we read such thoughtful debates in education and I only hope that those who will overhall the NCLB are listening or at least reading these debates.

I have just finished reading the most incredible picture book for children and young adults by Peter Sis called The Wall.It is by far the best book I have evr seen that describes what life was like after the war and under communism and why people like my father and mother escaped with their families to America.
Just recalling the compulsory education
that children received behind the iron curtain made me once again realize how important it is to speak up and share our views for a better, more inclusive education, for all our children, and especially those who come here seeking a better life.

I have worked with teachers in Boston
(Mattapan, Dorchester, East Boston) for the last ten years and know first hand that we can do much better but we need reinforcements. Often,I felt I was on the front line without pencils, books,and yes,even running water. How can we raise literacy without libraries? In the schools I visited, there were no school libraries and the public libraries were not open during times needed for working parents. The ones located in high crime areas had minimal hours. Just think of what we could do if some of the testing money could actually buy books for children or if law firms would give grants to bookstores so if a child visited the store, he would receive a gift- his own selected book!

Miriam Marecek

Miriam--yes yes yes, we need to remember that what we make compulsory needs to be respectful and worthy of all. I've sometimes "joked" that kids are encarcerated for 12 years for doing nothing wrong at all. But it isn't quite a joke.

What happened to school libraries, and public libraries, can't entirely be blamed on TV, computers and cheap books. It was also due to the fact that library boards and librarians didn't transform the library to meet our real needs--making it a center for gossip, conversation, book-talk and much of what bookstores took on. Even Barnes and Nobles serves coffee. Oh the sad library stories I could tell! In the small town I now live in upstate New York we have an extraordinary little library "maned" by an extraordinary group of volunteers led by one professional who makes the place the village center. My alternate career choice was being a librarian!



As an educator I find that the areas of data and statistics are so foreign that mostly I am skeptical because of ignorance. However, I will say that the new emphasis of quantitative proof has at least forced me to search. Search my knowledge and search our school's results. And, through this searching, I have been able to find areas of that I probably wouldn't have targeted ten years ago.
As for the use of data by the media, we are dealing with a system that is "smarter" than we are. The media, the think tanks, and whatever other organizations that are "improving" education through quantitative means always seem to focus on results instead of symptoms. Although I believe schools should be repsonsible for their results, I think that we, like the field of medicine, should be more concerned about using data to explore the symptomatic causes and issues that affect the results.

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