Saturday, August 19, 2006

Studies Prove

Thomas Sowell recently wrote a series of articles entitled “Studies Prove” (I, II and III). He gives examples, some from personal experience, about how stakeholders will selectively use data that bolsters their theory and suppress other data that doesn’t. A few salient points:
It was a valuable experience so early in my career to learn that what "studies prove" is often whatever those who did the studies wanted to prove. ... it is a terminal case of naivete to put statistical studies under the control of the same government agencies whose policies are being studied.

Nor will it do any good to let those agencies farm out these studies to "independent" researchers in academia or think tanks because they will obviously farm them out to people whose track record virtually guarantees that they will reach the conclusions that the agency wants.
In part III, he discusses a study that “proved” the effectives of affirmative action policies at universities. However, the study authors would not release their raw data for scrutiny by others, including the distinguished Harvard Professor Stephen Thernstrom, who has conducted some famous studies of his own. Prof. Sowell tells us of a similar experience he had:
Back in the 1970s, I tried to get statistical data from Harvard to test various claims about affirmative action. Derek Bok was then president of Harvard and he was the soul of graciousness, even praising a book on economics that I had written. But, in the end, I did not get to see one statistic.

During the same era I was also researching academically successful black schools. I flew across the country to try to get data on one school, talked with board of education officials, jumped through bureaucratic hoops -- and, after all this was done and the dust settled, I still did not get to see one statistic.

Why not? Think about it. Education officials have developed explanations for why they cannot educate black children. For me to write something publicizing outstanding academic results in this particular black school would be to open a political can of worms, leading people to ask why the other schools can't do the same.

Education bureaucrats decided to keep that can sealed.

Critics of affirmative action have long said that mismatching black students with colleges that they do not qualify for creates wholly needless academic failures among these students, who drop out or flunk out of colleges that they should never have been in, when most of them are fully qualified to succeed in other colleges.

Has the ending of preferential admissions in the University of California system and the University of Texas system led to a rise in the graduation rates of black students, as critics predicted? Who knows? These universities will not release those statistics. [Emphasis added]
One of the repeating themes of my posts is the plea to make as much data public as possible. For example, state boards of education and state colleges and universities have a wealth of data on how prospective teacher candidates perform on their licensure exams. Examination of this data could help explain why some states can set cut-scores 30 points higher (on a 100 point test) than others. But since this data might also be embarrassing as well as revealing, it is not available.

When I was soliciting data from the Educational Testing Service (ETS) for my investigations, it was made very clear that I could not have any disaggregated state level data. This restriction was a contractual obligation ETS had with the individual states that contracted for ETS’s services. Otherwise, ETS could hardly have been more gracious or cooperative.

Since policy advocacy often taints research I have been interested to read the studies of a outfit that claims to be “non-aligned and non-partisan” — The Nonpartisan Education Review:
We are allied with neither side. We have no vested interest. Unlike the many allied education pundits and researchers who call themselves independent, we actually are. And, we prove it by criticizing both sides, though probably not nearly as much as they deserve.

The Nonpartisan Education Review’s purpose is to provide education information the public can trust.
One of their reports, which discussed how states cheat on student proficiency tests, was featured in my post History Lesson.

I found this article by Richard Phelps of particular interest. It serves as an introduction to the caveats of educational research. It begins:
Over a decade ago, I was assigned a research project on educational testing at my day job. I read the most prominent research literature on the topic, and I believed what I read. Then, I devoted almost two years to intense study of one subtopic. The project was blessed with ample resources. In the end, it revealed that the prevailing wisdom was not only wrong but the exact opposite of reality.
He then exhibits a long list of claims all of which are “either wrong or grossly misleading”.

So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a big surprise to me that when states and the federal government want there to be an ample supply of “highly qualified” math and science teachers, their data will show that abracadabra they pop into existence, whether they really exist or not.


Matt Johnston said...

In seeeking your data from the states and public universities, have you tried submitting a Freedom of Information Act request for the data. While personally identifiable information is withheld, other disaggragated data, if available, must be given to the requester.

It may, of course, lead to some legal entanglements, but information gathered and maintained by the state is usually subject to FOIA requests, you just have to find the FOIA officer and start bugging them.

Dr. P. said...


I want data from 36 different states. Even if I made this a full time job, it would be a daunting task to file and manage that many FOIA requests.

Matt Johnston said...

I see. I was unaware of the scope of your work. That is indeed a daunting task.

silver said...

For an interesting view on HBCUs, see: