Wednesday, January 17, 2007

How to Persuade (and fudge the truth) with Data and Graphs

I went to a presentation today by the authors of "Tough Choices or Tough Times" Marc Tucker and former Senator and Labor Secretary William Brock (R-Tennessee). This report is being hailed as a potential for reform in Colorado's schools. No matter who you are or where you work if someone from the outside proposes massive and unrecognizable reform in your business you feel a little unsettled. That said, I feel like all of the recommendations the authors are making are worth examination. Other wise education bloggers have taken issue with the practical aspects of the report, I don't intend to do that here but I encourage you to read this post.

I have two issues with the Tough Choices presentation. First, the authors used a number of scary statistics and scenarios all our jobs will be in India before long). My philosophy TA in college called that "argument by scary pictures." The argument made was that more students must achieve higher education for the US to remain competitive. That assumes that US colleges are adequately preparing students to be competitive in the new creative fields (that require analytic thinking).

Second, the authors used a graph to make the argument that while spending has increased over the past 30 or so years, student achievement has not. I did not get a copy of the graph and did not have time to jot all the numbers down, but I did get the first number and the last. In the first year they showed a value of $3,400 and in the last year $8,977. On the other hand the student performance only raised a few points from 208 to 217. However, the authors did not take into account the change in real dollars. Unfortunately, I did not get the beginning year or the end year jotted down, but I think it began around 1970 and ended in 2005. See the graph here.

So, they argued that we have spent more dollars and that "clearly" hasn't worked. If the initial year was 1970 and the initial amount was $3,400, then in relative dollars the per pupil expenditure in 1970 was $17,096 according to this calculator. It is discouraging that there was not an opportunity to ask questions and the presenter did not address whether it was real or relative dollars. It felt slightly fraudulent in the way it was presented and that they wanted to pull one over on us. As if a bunch of educators would look at a graph, be shocked and beg for change.

I do not know where the reforms are headed, but when a presenter overlooks a key piece of information (like real or relative dollars) and appears to be trying to "lie" with data and visuals their credibility is severely damaged.

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