Betsy DeVos, joined by her husband Dick DeVos, is sworn in to be U.S. Education Secretary at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 7, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Betsy DeVos, joined by her husband Dick DeVos, is sworn in to be U.S. Education Secretary at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 7, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Education is on every country’s agenda as being a key to prosperity.  But the unprecedented need of Vice-President, Mike Pence’s vote to get the 51 necessary for Betsy DeVos to become the Secretary of Education, raises the question: What is going on with education in the US that provokes such sharp division by party lines? How can it be that there is such sharp division about what kind of education would be in the children’s best interests — the future of any country?

Back when I was growing up under communism, I could easily understand the sharp difference in opinions between my parents’ and my friends’ on one side, and the communist party on the other. The party wanted desperately to indoctrinate, whereas our parents did their best — at home, behind closed double-windows – to counterbalance the official brainwashing. But how can it be that Republicans and Democrats are so sharply divided about what is the purpose of schools, and how to solve the many problems kids and their parents have been facing for decades?

Superficial statistics notwithstanding, the facts concerning education in schools in the US show no improvement, no matter how many more billions of dollars have been thrown at the education sector. Former President Barack Obama’s administration increased spending for the lowest performing schools significantly. The administration also gave grants to states so as to induce them to adopt “Common Core” that set out what students should know in reading and math. These additions came after the U.S. already having been ranked among the highest spenders on education (US$11,700 per full-time equivalent student on elementary and secondary education according to a recent Education Department report, citing 2012 OECD data, about 31% above the average of the OECD countries).   Yet recent Nation’s Report Card showed no improvement in either math or reading.

True, the US’s graduation rate increased to a record 83% in 2014-15. It is this number that brings us to the issue of how easy it is to lie with statistics when politicians and bureaucracies are in charge of producing them. Since education is so crucial for every developing country in Asia, Latin America, Africa, it is useful to take a closer look at how the various government bureaucracies and unions have managed to massage the numbers to cover bad performance with rosy statistical veils. People learn from mistakes — less so from successes. And societies around the world can learn important lessons from the US experience — and they will learn more as Mrs. DeVos carries out the policies she had been long advocating, giving parents more choices in which schools to send their kids.

At the moment, to see why the 83% number is unreliable in terms of evaluating how much the graduating kids actually know, start with the fact that the government decided to evaluate schools — and gave them money — based on graduation rates. A researcher at University of California, Santa Barbara, though noted that “One of the criticisms I have of the graduation rate as an accountability measure, is it encourages schools and districts to discharge high-risk kids” obviously raising their graduation rates.

Where do the dumped kids go? Where do they show up in the statistics?  The answers vary. In Chicago, one of the biggest school districts in the country, investigations have found that the district is misclassifying students who enroll the above kids in these “dropout dumps” as some call it as “out-of-district transfers.” Briefly: the kids disappear from any statistics. If the transferred kid though manages to graduate — the school gets credit.

Texas reports the nation’s second-highest graduation rate and the highest in the nation for African-Americans and Hispanics. But some investigations suggest that the figures there too exclude tens of thousands of students from the dropout count, simply because schools report, with little required documentation, that students have left the country or are being home-schooled.

Briefly: change the words, and the graduation rates rise. The exercise reminds of another government policy where with the words redefined, Mr. Obama’s administration appeared to carry out ruthless, unprecedented deportation of illegal immigrants. How did his administration do it? Until the Obama administration, illegal immigrants caught within few miles from the border were sent back and just referred to as “catch and release” — not “deported.” Under Mr. Obama, such illegals were reclassified as “deported.” We are in Orwell’s world: these are two small examples how words have consequences — especially if journalists do not make proper due diligence and just look at the numbers of “deported” and use the emotionally charged word of “deportation,” or take bragging about “graduation rates” on face value.

After this linguistic/statistical detour, let us get back to education. Students risking not graduating from the regular schools were given the option to “recover credits.” In Detroit, more than a third of the students at Cody Medicine and Community Health Academy, for example, are in credit-recovery programs. With the incentives to improve graduation rates, teachers and schools sent their not-performing students to companies such as K12, national High School and others, to get the necessary high school credits. Daria Hall, a director at The Education Trust acknowledged that “Some of these credit-recovery programs frankly aren’t terribly rigorous and aren’t preparing students well for what’s next.”

There are other ways too to get to the 83% number. In Camden, NJ, for example, almost half of the area’s high school seniors graduated through an appeals process because they couldn’t pass the required exams to graduate. I could not quite discover what this means, but one thing is clear: this diploma is not backed by the same knowledge as the usual one.

Briefly: nobody quite knows these days how much behind the 83% number reflects knowledge, and how much just a statistical pretense of having produced knowledge. And if much of what schools produce these days it is the latter, it has real consequences, leading to frustrated expectations of both the kids who were granted too easily these fake credentials, and of their parents, who expected schools to be the venue for their offspring income mobility. Should one call the 83% number another case of the suddenly popular term of “fake news”? Or simply just another case of misleading aggregate number — statistical measure that is, misused by now for decades by both politicians and by “macro-strologists” (discussed in a series of columns last year on these pages).

What may be the lessons of Asian and developing countries looking at this experience? One is, hold teachers and school administrations accountable. The obvious way to do it is not letting a centralized political bureaucracy come up with some numbers by which to judge performance and compensate accordingly. Teachers and school administrations are smart enough to find ways to produce those numbers. This does not mean that they produced “education.”

Are vouchers and charter schools — Mrs. DeVos’s suggested policies – the best solution to solve the many problems schools face in the US? It makes sense, but God and Devil will be in the details of execution.

In very simple terms, kids in schools will perform well and graduate when some subject catches their interest; when kids are surrounded by disciplined kids wanting to learn. Not every kid has to be a genius, but it helps if there are few outstanding kids in class that then, the good, but not outstanding kids would both learn from them, perhaps emulate, or perhaps their own way to excel in something. Just as in sports teams, not everyone is a Tom Brady. But one Tom Brady matters, exciting the other members of his team for a better performance. Teachers, collaborating with parents, but not submitting to parents’ occasional pressures to give higher grade to their little “geniuses,” are fulfilling their roles if they manage to excite, interest students, or to the very least prevent them from being bored to death. They would be fulfilling their roles too to be honest with the parents and direct their kids to vocational schools and apprenticeships if for whatever reasons high school is not for them, perhaps reminding parents that plumbers live far better — perhaps even happier – than many sociologists at obscure colleges, or bureaucrats with credentials sitting in some boxes shuffling papers.

What the vouchers and greater parental choice would allow is the chance to find better matches between kids, teachers and parents, that the present centralized, bureaucratic, unionized educational system in the US failed providing. Why the Democrats were displaying groupthink in voting all against this experiment, since it is quite obvious that the present system does not work? Was it the backing of the Teachers’ Union? Can it be that they all genuinely believe that the present system can be remedied by throwing even more money to it and is the very best way to raise future generations? I let others speculate on these answers, which for now appear irrelevant. Let see execution, from which countries around the world could learn — and save a bundle avoiding the grave, very costly mistakes Washington committed for decades.

Reuven Brenner is a governor at IEDM (Institut Économique de Montréal). He is professor emeritus at McGill University. He was the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, was awarded the Canada Council's prestigious Killam Fellowship Award in 1991, and is a member of the Royal Society.

4 replies on “Education statistics: Figures lie and politicians figure”

Comments are closed.