Friday, October 22, 2010

Superman's Statistics

Wired Magazine has an article in their September issue on "7 Essential Skills You Didn't Learn in College." One of their proposed new courses is Statistical Literacy. Indeed, this is one of the areas in which many American students leave school unprepared. The new movie Waiting for Superman capitalizes on this fact to discuss, ironically, school reform. Here are a two statistics from the movie* that school should have taught us to question:

  • On average, more money is spent per-student now than in 1970. Did they really just cite a mean statistic when talking about money in the US? The top 1% of US earners throw everything off and are also likely to live in the same neighborhoods, putting money into the same schools. What are the median statistics? Also, how has the student body being served changed over that time? For example, are there more English Language Learners (ELL) students? Are more students being diagnosed with ADHD and getting the extra services they need? There are many such trends that might increase even the median amount without actually increasing the "average" money spent per "average" student. Plus, why is spending more money on our public schools a bad thing? What's the average cost per private school student?
  • Average US test scores have not increased since 1970. Again, I say average? Student body composition? Composition of students taking the test? Also, what test?

In addition, the schools that they do highlight as doing well on standardized tests (is that the appropriate goal?) actually spend much more than the current national average per student to achieve that, so in addition to the statistics being murky, they're not actually making the movie's point.

In a later post, I'll hopefully get to the many other issues of this movie. For now, let me just remind you that, as Mark Zuckerberg would agree, you shouldn't believe everything you see on the big screen.

* Obviously, I don't remember the statistics or wording exactly from the movie. So, disclaimer, this represents the gist as I remember it. Of course, since their statistics weren't explicitly derived to begin with, these might just be the same numbers under a slightly different model.

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