Data Opinion

Trust and transparency

By Deborah Meier — July 18, 2007 3 min read
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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.


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