politics research

Using Statistics to Mislead the Public about Charter Schools

The Deseret News, a local Utah newspaper, today published a story titled Study: Majority of U.S. charter schools perform equal or worse than traditional schools, accompanied by the following infographic:


What’s wrong with this story? While the information conveyed by the headline is, strictly speaking, an accurate reflection of the data, the DesNews is using the headline to seriously mislead the public. Let’s explore an alternate, accurate headline the DesNews could have run to see how they’re misinforming the public with this story.

While the story’s headline is accurate given the data shown in the infographic, the opposite headline is also true. The story could just as accurately have been titled:

“Study: Majority of U.S. charter schools perform equal or better than traditional schools”

How can both these statements be true? The answer is in the statistics. 56% of the charter schools in the study are not significantly different from other public schools in their local market when it comes to student performance in reading. 40% are not significantly different from other public schools in their local market when it comes to student performance in math. To say “majority” in the headline, we only have to get to 51%. The reading scores are already above 51%, and math only needs a few percentage points to reach majority status. So by including the 19% and 31% of charter schools that were significantly lower in reading and math, we get totals of 75% and 71% for schools with “equal or worse performance” in reading or math. So the DesNews’ headline is accurate.

However, the math works the other direction as well. By including the 25% and 29% of charter schools that were significantly better in reading and math, we get the totals of 81% and 69% for schools with “equal or better performance” in reading or math. So the opposite, positive headline would also have been accurate.

When there are two equally accurate – yet opposite – ways of interpreting data, the choice one makes clearly reveals one’s bias. It’s unclear whether the anti-charter school bias in the DesNews story belongs to the reporter or to the paper’s editors. Regardless of the source of the bias, the choice – and it this case, it is clearly a conscious choice – to portray the data in a negative way is disappointing.

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Utah Open Science Textbooks for 2013-2014

The Utah State Office of Education has posted their open science textbooks for grades 7 – 12 for the coming school year. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Based on the CK-12 Foundation‘s open science textbooks
  • Customized specifically for Utah students by Utah teachers
  • Each book’s Table of Contents is the Utah Science Core Standards
  • Professionally designed
  • Print copies available from Amazon’s CreateSpace for an average cost of $5 per book (for schools that need a print option)

And here are the links to the free and open PDF versions of the books:

and the print versions available from CreateSpace:

Seeing the USOE launch the initiative statewide for this coming fall is the extremely gratifying culmination of years of collaborative work and research between the USOE, the Nebo school district, BYU, and Lumen. My research team (the Open Education Group) are currently finalizing an article analyzing data from last year’s expanded pilot, which shows statistically significant gains in student performance on the state’s end of year standardized tests for students using the $5 books.

Later this week, or perhaps early next, I’ll publish our process guide for creating and adopting open science textbooks statewide. We’ve learned many important lessons along the way…

politics textbooks

The Supreme Court Gets It Right on Copyright

Excellent coverage by Ronald Mann over on the SCOTUS Blog of an even more excellent decision by the court in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. While the whole analysis is worth a read, here is the good news in plain English:

The Court at last seems to have reached a consensus on a seemingly intractable problem of copyright law: whether a U.S. copyright holder can prevent the importation of “gray-market” products manufactured for overseas markets….

In Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, the Court considered the “first sale” doctrine of copyright law. This is a rule that means that when a publisher sells a copyrighted work once, it loses any right to complain about anything later done with that copy. This is the rule that makes it okay to resell a used book to a used-book store, and for that store in turn to sell used books to its customers.

The issue in Kirtsaeng was whether the first-sale doctrine applies to copyrighted works manufactured overseas. Kirtsaeng bought textbooks in Thailand, where they are cheap, brought them to the United States, and resold them at a large profit. The lower courts said he couldn’t do this, and ordered him to pay damages to the publisher (John Wiley). The Supreme Court disagreed. The Justices said that the first-sale doctrine applies to all books, wherever made. So even if you buy a book made in England, you can resell it without permission from the publisher.

Now that the reselling of these kinds of books is unequivocally legal in the US, I expect we’ll see a host of interesting new tactics from students in their ongoing arms race against the publishers. Between this ruling and the ever growing impact of OER, it feels like it’s getting harder to be a traditional publisher. Don’t quite cry for Pearson yet though – “In 2011, Pearson increased sales by 4% in headline terms to £5.9bn and adjusted operating profit from continuing operations by 10% to £942m.”

We’ve still got a lot of work to do.