Society and Culture, Education

‘Data’ Is Not the Plural of ‘Anecdote’

To those who have been following the implementation of the education portions of the stimulus, the recent headline coming from the White House is far from surprising. In a joint report from the Domestic Policy Council and the Department of Education, the administration is saying that the stimulus has saved or created 250,000 education jobs.

Two AEI reports predicted and then found that states and districts were simply taking about $75 billion in federal funds and using it to backfill their existing budget holes. This isn’t particularly sophisticated policymaking: States and districts had huge deficits due to the recession, the federal government (able to borrow without end despite its own deficits) gave them money via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), and they used it to pay for what they were already doing.

The problem is that this money was intended to—and should—be used for education reform, not just preserving existing jobs and programs. But as two major studies found, states and districts are using this money merely to preserve the status quo. This of course may be good for grown-ups, but it’s not so hot for America’s schoolchildren.

But what’s most newsworthy about the White House report is its claim—to my knowledge the first time the administration has argued this—that in addition to preserving jobs and programs, stimulus funds are also advancing reform. To support this claim, it lists a few anecdotes of districts spending money on worthwhile new initiatives.

However, as a wise professor once told me years ago, “data is not the plural of anecdote.” I’m quite surprised and disappointed that the White House would claim, “that ARRA funds are accomplishing both of these essential objectives (stabilization and reform)” and not even mention the GAO study or the report from the American Association of School Administrators that found quite the opposite.

The White House report was based on the administration’s analysis of recently received mandatory state filings under the ARRA. The public gets to see these documents at the end of the month; at that point we’ll be able to better sort out the actual preservation-reform blend of spending. Or as an excellent reporter at Education Week noted with pregnant understatement, “Given that most of the money has so far been used to get state K-12 funding levels up to the status quo, it will be most interesting to see what states and school districts report spending their money on.”

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