Friday, December 19, 2008

The Need for Intellectual Honesty; The Unfair Knock Against Charter Schools

Recent reports have suggested that Indiana charter schools are failing to exceed regular public schools in performance or in some cases falling short..Those reports then proceed to use data that supposedly support the claim.

Russ Simnick, President of the Indiana Public Charter School Association, blows aways many of those statistics and the assumptions in a letter to the editor in today's Indianapolis Star. I would encourage people to read the editorial.

What I find disturbing is that this is another area where people are willing to distort statistics to support an agenda in favor of, in this case, the status quo in education. While that is understandable when you are talking about politicians, many of these people distorting the statistics are professional educators who should be held to a higher standard when it comes to intellectual honesty.

Unfortunately a lack of intellectual honesty is not limited to the field of education. You also see it in the field of science, where political correctness, peer pressure and often the allure of grant money silences contrary views and a real debate when it comes to the issue of global warming.

These are disturbing anti-intellectual trends. A fair debate and honest use of statistics are essential to adopting good public policies. When those statistics intentionally get distorted to promote a particular agenda, especially when done so by academics and scientists who the public has historically believed provide objective, unbiased analysis, we all suffer the consequences of the adoption of bad public policy.


varangianguard said...

Paul, Paul, Paul. You have fallen victim to the very thing you decry here, the misuse of statistics by people who should know better.

Let's face it. When it comes to issues like education, all involved parties have an agenda. If they claim impartiality in any sense, they are the worst sort of dishonest intellectuals. The agenda might be fairly benign, but nevertheless they have an agenda. The person writing the Star is no different. he didn't set out to set any records straight, but instead to simply declaim that the record isn't giving his side of the story (what is he? Oh yeah, chief hack of chartered schools. Real unbiased).

First, oh yeah, Indianapolis' efforts at charter schools are lauded. By proponents of charter schools and critics of public schools. Hmmppf. Real credible "evidence" that.

The author takes issue with the conclusions drawn from the results. Fine. Indeed, there is likely room for plenty of criticism of the methodologies used to arrive at the statistics in question. But, Puh-leez! The statement, "Is the reward for citizens' efforts to locate a school in a challenged neighborhood in order to better the lives of its students through education to have their results described with selective and misleading information?" is ridiculously biased. What would the charter schools do if the answer to that lame question is a resounding - YES!? Leave? Pick up their toys and go where they're more appreciated? Nice option, if you can have it.

Next, the author launches into a discussion of another IU study. But, what are we regaled with? Well, when they agree with my view, they are spot on, but when they don't they stink like the first report. Again, puh-leez. I'm not an attorney, but when a writer uses two different phrasings to describe the same thing, I become suspicious. The author doesn't agree with the per-pupil funding appraisal, but describes the "general funds" dollars to be the same. Is that misleading by omission? They get the same general funds dollars, but charter students get more from somewhere else, like The Lilly Endownment perhaps? Hmmm. And where, pray tell, are the "facts" and "accurate comparisons" that the author alludes to? Missing.

More overall funding? It seems to me that the charters in my district use district transportation. Charters don't "get" the money, but they are sure using the money. Another strike against credibility for me. I'd have to look up concerning facilities, but I'm thinking that charters aren't paying rent.

Ho-ho-ho. Critical of the assessment methodology, then jumps right into his own methodology which isn't supported by any kind of evidence that proves it superior. Just slanted differently. Smooth.

"Measure of success"? Charter schools are full of motivated students. If they aren't graduating 90+%, then they should be classed as abject failures. Unmotivated students don't go to, or stay long in charter schools. That should make charter schools chock-a-block full of college bound graduates. Making that sound like a real achievement is intellectually dishonest, at best.

That "demand" for charter schools is high, should be a sign of two things. One, there are still plenty of motivated families out there, and that they don't feel they are being well served by public schools. Instead of picking up their toys and running off, politicians should be showing that their skills aren't limited to their golf swing, or in plumping their own benefit packages up year after year. If the paradigm of the mission of public schooling has changed, then the politicians need to get off their toupeed behinds and change the paradigm via legislation. Charter schools are just going to leave more and more of the population behind, and I don't think that's what it's all about. Charter schools aren't the answer, they are just another "answer du jour".

One final note. The author seems to be a real elitist, a "more challenging group of students"? That does mean "poor students" doesn't it? Wow.

The central facts to know about charter schools are more like: it's great to be included, if you can get in; somebody else will still be footing the bill for you; and as a parent you'll be so much happier because we'll keep telling how great we are.

It's all in the angle, the slant, whatever. Know what is really sad? It isn't the math of statistics that is suspect, it's that very few people can effectively arrive at assumptions that aren't heavily biased, find data that doesn't have limitations, or be able to conclude anything beyond what they went in believing. In effect, they go in with a predetermined result in mind, twist, skew or mainpulate the data to "fit" their assumptions, and conclude that they were right to begin with, no matter what the raw results might have said.

Paul K. Ogden said...


Sorry it took so long to respond. I think you have some facts wrong. Charter schools do not get money for transportation (and can't just simply use other public schools transportion). If they have a bus they are paying for that bus And charters do pay rent. All charter schools receive is the per pupil allotment.

Non-charter schools, regular public schools let's call them, receive not only the per pupil allotment but receive money for buildings and for transportion above the per pupil allotment. So it is indisputable that charter schools cost taxpayers less.

Charter schools have to take the same students as other public schools. You seem to be implying that they can cherry pick students. Not true.

The problem is that with study published in the Star, much of the ISTEP data on the charter schools, was in fact ISTEP data that was before the student transferred to a charter school. Other times, while the ISTEP information came from a student who was in a charter school, he or she may have only just started there a week or two when she took the ISTEP test. (Remember Indiana has historically given the test in the fall, a few weeks after the students start class.)

I wouldn't say that Mr. Simnick doesn't have an agenda. Hopefully as an advocate for charter schools, he does have an agenda. I would say the same thing about those who have organizations opposed to charter schools. They are just doing their jobs. The thrust of my column was opposition to academic types, who are supposed to be objective and intellectually honest, twisting data for purposes of a political agenda.

varangianguard said...


I don't want to get side-tracked, but in my district there is a two building Edison test in progress, and I think that the disctrict's transportation system is used. I now see that the same isn't the case for the metro charter schools I looked at.

And, I don't want to imply that the charter schools are selectively cherry picking students. What I want to imply is that charter schools are the willy-nilly beneficiaries of a select group of students whose parents are motivated to try and give their children a leg up in their education. The kid who misses 20 or more school days per semester is very, very unlikely to have parents who would bother to sign them up for charter schools. So, the least motivated, least prepared students rarely attend charter schools. That does affect a school's progress and should skew the results against TPSs. If charter schools aren't wildly outperforming TPSs, then charter schools ain't all that, IMO.

I also don't want you to think that I don't recognize that TPSs could/should improve - dramatically. I have been around educators all my life, administrators and classroom teachers. I went to public school. So, according to the prevailing political wisdom, that ought to qualify me to be a Congressman or Senator (the problem is, I don't like kissing other peoples' babies, or behinds). Silliness aside, I understand exactly what it is that charter school proponents are complaining about. What I don't like is their methodology for "fixing" it. Charter schools are a political expediency, made by clever people who don't have the political guts, or the political clout to effect change via legislation. Worse, their "solution" is just another half-assed, fixe du jour (fix of the day), just like almost every other "fix" that has preceded it - ad nauseum.

Sounds good down at the watering hole after work. Looks good on paper, with the help of some of that subjective data tweaking that your own PAC paid for. Cleverly, it end runs around the competition's legal hurdles through a Mack Truck sized loophole in existing law. What could go wrong?

The problem is that for those same charter school folks who bemoan short term reporting as nonrepresentative, also use short term positive signs to claim victory over the TPSs. Now, isn't that just a tad bit disengenuous, hmmm? What I recognize is that short term trending is indicative of nothing in particular over the longer term. Each and every fixe du jour is heralded by its proponents as the Second Coming, yet inevitably, over some period of time, the benefits fail to be validated or become a self-perpetuating success. In fact, it is more likely that the charter school idea will, over time, become as overly bureaucratic and inefficient as the TPSs that they are attempting to supplant.

There is no evidence to the contrary, and so why should anybody get too excited about charter schools eventually becoming just like TPSs? It would simply be bloated inefficient bureaucracy controlled by a different set of players. A different set of players who are acting as if they are the Bob Grands of education. Woo-hoo. Forgive me if I am less than enthused at the prospect.

As to the thrust of your original post, where have YOU been?!? Political agenda, selfish agenda, funding agenda, sponsor's agenda, mentor's agenda, and so forth drives academia today. The post-secondary system of degrees that has developed in the 20th has guaranteed mediocrity and self-aggrandizement. But one only sees it if one is part of it, interested in it, or upon the occasion of it being purchased for political purposes. I have at least as much to say about the current state of "research" in academia, but it really deserves its own posting.