Tuesday, October 30, 2007

These Numbers may not lie but

they certainly don't tell the truth. There is a study that many newspapers reported on today without questioning the underlying assumptions. Michael (formerly Half-bakered, now of Mediaverse) Ray Hollihan provides the context:
Tuesday's Commercial Appeal has an article on a report (PDF format) issued by the Southern Education Foundation. The SEF is an advocacy group dedicated, according to its website, to Advancing Creative Solutions to Assure Fairness and Excellence in Education.

The article puts forward all the report's statements and conclusions without question. The quotes used come only from "Steve Suitts, SEF program coordinator and author of the report." Nothing seems to have been examined or rebutted.

[...]

Ah, more money. That's only "part" of the solution, but it's the only part talked about. Praise for Governor Bredesen's new education programs is singled out. Those programs are in large part funded by one-time windfalls from the state lottery and revenue tax surpluses. They may not be sustainable if the state's budget or economic situation changes.

The other problem is that comparisons are made between state expenditures on education on a dollar-by-dollar basis, not taking cost of living into account. In other words, a dollar spent in Tennessee will go a lot farther than a dollar spent in New York or California. Factoring in the cost of living to make comparisons more valid might change the picture.

There is also the whole issue of advocacy. The report is arguing for the very thing that the SEF wants to do -- spend more money. Skepticism seems called for in reporting any press release by an advocacy group.

Reading the report; knowing the context; watching for possible issues of self-interest by the group that gives you the report; looking past the numbers on the page. All are good ideas that lead to substantive news stories of real value.