by Bob Geary
That was one strange banner headline on the front page of the N&O today: "Data hint how far may tell how well bused students do." (I see they've changed the headline online.) The odd phraseology is perhaps due to the fact that the "data" discussed in the story under it, as the headline writer certainly recognized, is presented as meaning one thing about the Wake schools diversity policy when it plainly means something else entirely.
The headline writer could hardly have chosen the most suitable title: "What a crock of sh-t this story is." So instead, he or she reached for a pair of weasel words — "hint" and "may" — whose traditional meaning in newspaper journalism is as follows: "Suggest you ignore this story, but at a minimum, don't assume it's true."
Well. I'm glad I got that off my chest. Anyone else reminded that there are Three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics?
The Wake school board's leaders (John Tedesco et al) want us to think that the reason black students who ride farther score lower is the ride itself — that is, it's the distance from their homes that causes their lower scores. And the N&O reports that defenders of the "old" diversity policy (they never miss a chance to call it old) are "scrambling" to respond to this reasoning.
Defenders may be scrambling, but only because it's hard to respond to an argument that makes no sense at all.
The actual reason black students who ride farther score lower is that it is low-income black students who ride farthest in order to diversify suburban schools ... and diversify the schools in their own low-income neighborhoods by creating openings for magnet students. Ditto the low-scoring white students: They are the long-riding, low-income white students.
.And as defenders of the old diversity policy have always argued, there IS a correlation between incomes and achievement. Which is why the defenders of diversity think it's a bad idea to put all the low-income kids into a few "neighborhood schools" — which is what the Wake school board majority was setting out to do before cooler heads slowed them down.
If distance from home correlated with low achievement, kids who choose magnet schools and travel long distances to get to them would have the worst results. Of course, their results are excellent.
To repeat: Low-income black and white students score lower in general than their middle-class and up-scale black and white peers. And it is the former low-income group, not the latter well-off ones, who travel longer distances by bus to leave their low-income neighborhoods and attend schools in more affluent neighborhoods.
Would these low-income kids do better if they stayed at home? The "data" not only don't "hint" at the answer to that question, they give no indication of it whatsoever. Do these bused low-income kids do better, worse or about the same as their low-income counterparts who remain close to home in low-income neighbhorhood schools? The data in the N&O story tell us nothing to answer that question either. (But from my rough understanding of other data, the answer is they do about the same. And all, bused and not bused, would probably do worse if they were aggregated in a few low-income neighhorhood schools, but that's a supposition based on the results in virtually every other American city — We don't know what would happen in Wake County because, thank goodness, we haven't tried that kind of economic segregation here since the '70s.)
Strangly, the N&O's editorial writers understand the point I'm making. I know because they made it in an editorial that also ran today:
The heart of the board's rationale for its actions is that under the old system, black students bore the heaviest burden of long bus rides, and that sending kids from their mostly black neighborhoods to the distant, mostly white suburbs tended to drag them down academically. They offered data purporting to make their case.
But the data are clouded by the fact that black students whose families can afford to live in the suburbs themselves - and there are plenty - of course wouldn't have to ride as far to get to school. And such students tend to get better test scores. So the pattern here is familiar: Family income is a predictor of academic success.
The editorial writers also published a letter today from Matthew Brown of Raleigh (one of those defenders), who cut through the bullsh-t presented on the front page in two well-worded paragraphs:
As evidence that busing for diversity does not work, the Wake school board majority presented evidence that black students who are bused longer distances tend to score lower than black students who are bused shorter distances (news story, March 30). But as the school board is well aware, the diversity policy is based on income, not race. Low-income students are more likely to be bused longer distances to avoid concentrations of low-income students in schools. So of course low-income black students are more likely to be bused longer distances than higher-income black students!
Because of the correlation between income and test scores, we should certainly expect that the students bused longer distances will tend to score lower than those bused shorter distances. Of course the school board majority knows this, but they think that the public can be fooled by their fact-twisting. "If you torture the data sufficiently, it will say whatever you want it to."
Anyone who doubts that there's a "wall" between the reporters and editorial writers at the N&O, take note:
Clearly, if an editorial writer had read the front-page news story before it ran, it wouldn't have run. Or it would've run with the headline: "What a crock of sh-t this story is."