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 these days 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.
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 for each new stat I ingest.
And so, in keeping with the spirit of the times, I am going to provide a few examples that mean nothing individually, but collectively…well, they don’t really 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 nary 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 gonna have 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 the United States 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 gonna have to wait until 2020 to actually do the official finger pointing? 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 coupla 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 travelling 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 (And either does you!)? 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. Um. Yeah. Right. 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)
- “If your experiment needs a statistician, you need a better experiment.” (Ernest Rutherford)
- “A recent survey of North American males found 42% were overweight, 34% were critically obese and 8% ate the survey.” (Banksy)
And finally, please remember the words of Gregg Easterbrook who said, “Torture numbers, and they'll confess to anything.”
Alan Lawrence Sitomer was California's Teacher of the Year in 2007. He is also the author of multiple works for young readers, including Nerd Girls, the Hoopster trilogy, THE SECRET STORY OF SONIA RODRIGUEZ, CINDER-SMELLA, and THE ALAN SITOMER BOOKJAM. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. In addition to being an inner-city high school English teacher and former professor in the Graduate School of Education at Loyola Marymount University, Alan is a nationally renowned speaker specializing in engaging reluctant readers who received the 2004 award for Classroom Excellence from the Southern California Teachers of English, the 2003 Teacher of the Year honor from California Literacy, the 2007 Educator of the Year award by Loyola Marymount University and the 2008 Innovative Educator of the Year from The Insight Education Group. A Fun Look at Our Serious Work appears quarterly on the Engage blog.
© 2013 Alan Sitomer. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.