Friday, June 22, 2007

How to distort the facts about school vouchers.

An article by Sam Dillon for the New York Times is a decent example of bad journalism. He won’t think so. Apparently the New York Times didn’t think so either since they published it. I say it is shoddy, not because it was badly written, but because there was an obvious bias in it. I would not fault an opinion piece having bias but this was a news story.

Let’s start with some Journalism 101 as I was taught it. A journalist is supposed to write an article with the more important facts at the top and the less important facts at the bottom.

One should be able to read the first paragraph and have a synopsis of the story. This is done due to space limitations. An editor can’t know precisely how much space he will have for any one article. He may think he has 10 column inches of space and find he has only eight. With deadlines he can’t ask the journalist to rewrite the piece. Instead he takes a pair of scissors and simply cuts the bottom paragraphs until it fits.

If the story is written correctly no critical information is lost. You may lose some clarification or some back up material. But the basics of the story are there at the beginning of the story.

Dillon’s story is about Washington, D.C. education vouchers. In the first sentence he says that students in the voucher program “did not show significantly higher math or reading achievement”. That is the main point he stresses or the most important fact he found in this story.

His second point was that the students attended “private schools” “at taxpayer expense”, which he later tells us was $7,500 per student.

His third point was that the parents, mostly African-Americans, love the program because they said they felt the schools they were sending their children to were much safer. However, the students didn’t seem to think they were much different. (And we all know how well kids are at determining risks.)

Dillon’s lead fact was that there was no major improvement in test scores for voucher students. But if you go down to the 7th paragraph, about halfway through the story, you discover his lead fact isn’t so critical after all. “The students had been attending private schools for an average of less than a year when they were tested for the study, not much time for their new academic environment to affect performance.”

Now why is that buried halfway through the article when the claim that there was no improvement is in the first sentence? If the students hadn’t even completed their first year at the new schools, then why make a big deal about the lack of improvement? And why separate these two details by several paragraphs?

Every journalist knows, or ought to know, that the farther down the story that a fact appears the less likely it is to be noticed. Many people will read the first paragraph or two and then go on to another article. If you want to distort the perceptions of the readers you can make a claim at the beginning of the article but only present the counterclaim near the end of the article.

In the first paragraph we learn the students attended “private schools” at “public expense”. About two-thirds down we find out that each student in the voucher program actually cut the cost for the District. The money for the vouchers “was about half the average public expenditure per student in the District of Columbia public schools.”

I also thought I’d check. The budget for the public school system in DC is $1.53 billion for the coming fiscal year. And the number of students in the school system is 62,110. If every student in DC were on a voucher the cost would be $466 million. That’s not half the cost, as Dillon claimed, but less than one third the cost, actually about 30%. There is a huge differences between 30% and 50%. Perhaps Mr. Dillon learned his math at a public school.

Let’s assume that there will be no improvement at all for these students ever -- a major assumption and a false one. Does that show vouchers are a bad idea? First, in this case it shows that the private schools can do just as well as the public schools at a much lower cost. Even a 50% savings in costs, without a decrease in learning, is of some importance. This article could just as easily have said: “A study released today showed that students in a voucher program received the same level of education, but at half the cost, of those in state schools.”

Imagine a gasoline brand being sold that gave the same performance as what you use now at one third the cost. That would be considered a major advance for the motorist and newspapers stories would be hailing the cost cutting. The same education, at a significantly lower cost, is a major improvement even if Mr. Dillon doesn’t think so.

Various studies show students in voucher programs do have a modest improvement in their test scores. But that doesn’t tell the full story by any means. While better testing scores are an indication of success the real improvement is in the percentage of students who manage to graduate. For instance ,Milwaukee’s voucher program had a graduation rate of 64 percent. That is poor in my opinion but it was well above the graduation rate for government schools there the same year: 36 percent.

And while various studies have shown improved test scores and higher graduation rates for voucher students not one study has shown the opposite. The most the critics of vouchers have claimed is the line that Dillon was feeding people in his article -- that there was no major improvement. And that rests on the assumption that learning the same skills at half, to a third, of the cost is not an improvement.

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