The plural of anecdote is not data.
This is an insight apparently lost on Chicago Tribune columnist Heidi Stevens. The last time she wrote about the Chicago Public Schools system, her column was chocked full of anecdotes pretending to be representative of a larger truth. Spoiler alert: they weren’t.
Now, in the wake of the revelation of Governor Bruce Rauner’s boneheaded 5-year old remarks about CPS teachers and principles, Stevens is back, back again, to regale us with more non-representative stories about the supposed glory of the Chicago Public Schools system:
In second grade, my daughter had her heart set on attending UCLA.
It was her teacher’s alma mater, and she loved the idea of growing up to be just like the woman who nourished her love for math and introduced her to “The Hundred Dresses,” a book we both still adore. That teacher took the time to send a postcard to my daughter from UCLA during a family visit, which I saved. (Obviously.)
The year before, my daughter had her heart set on the University of Michigan, where her first grade teacher earned her bachelor’s degree. She’s the teacher who met my daughter at Millennium Park for a summer picnic — my daughter’s favorite outing of that entire year. Blue and gold, my daughter decided, were definitely for her.
My children’s school does “college day” each year; teachers and staff sport apparel from their alma maters, and kids are encouraged to wear gear from their parents’ schools. This gets the students talking about college — in an age-appropriate way — by kindergarten. My daughter will change her dream college seven or eight more times before graduation (she’s 10), based in large part, I’m guessing, on the counsel of her beloved teachers.
My kids go to a Chicago public school.
Talking about college as soon as kindergarten. My goodness. Does anyone else think this is a bit much? I understand the statistical correlation between increased earning power and a college degree, but I also think we’ve been heading down a problematic road for a while now in constantly pushing this “all kids must go to college” goal on each and every student.
College probably is the right place for a lot of students. There are certainly many benefits of a college degree, even if I think the premium of importance we place on it is a tad overstated. But there are also plenty of reasons to believe a college degree is overrated or, at least, overpriced.
With the perpetual increase in tuition prices, it’s worth wondering if it’s really worth the cost — both financial costs and opportunity costs. Heading to college immediately after graduating high school isn’t the best course of action for everyone. Of these people ill-prepared for college work, the great economist Milton Friedman, who spent most of his life teaching at the university level, once described them as on “a pleasant interlude between high school and going to work.”
To match anecdotes with Stevens for only a moment here, one of my very good friends dropped out of college on his first attempt, right out of high school. He then spent several years working and writing music. He’s now finishing up his master’s degree at a very prestigious fine arts school. It’s amazing what a little maturity and worldly perspective can do for one’s willingness to achieve meaningful life goals.
We also need people in the trades. Plumbing, heating and cooling, mechanics, etc. These are good paying jobs that too few people are going into anymore.
Pardon the semi-digression here but this “college for all” mentality is, I think, just another one of the problems in our modern education system.
Gov. Bruce Rauner called half of CPS teachers “virtually illiterate” in an email exchange about education reform. Half of CPS principals, he wrote, are “managerially incompetent.” (Any wonder that more than 50 have resigned or retired in 2016?)
Rauner’s spokesman issued an apology on Thursday, which the governor followed with his own apology at a news conference on an unrelated education matter Friday, calling his comments “intemperate.”
They’re also wildly inaccurate.
Hyperbolized, over-the-top, and foolish? Yes. “Wildly inaccurate?” No, and we’ll come back to that later.
The CPS educators I’ve met — as a parent and a journalist — speak multiple languages and hold advanced degrees. They work with laughably few resources, policymakers who constantly doubt and demonize them, and a student body whose lives are often punctuated by poverty and violence.
And, still, they work wonders.
Again, these are anecdotes about people she’s met. Anecdotes. Not data.
Also, they work with “laughably few resources?” That really strains credulity. The total budget for all of CPS in 2015 was $5.69 billion. I don’t think that’s laughable. The per student expenditure is just above $15,000 per pupil. I don’t think that’s laughable, either. Especially when you consider that other schools do far more with far less.
But, to the extent that classroom resources are strapped, do you think the massive pension problem might have something to do with it? The district just made a $657 million pension payment, leaving them with a whopping $83 million cash on hand. This is the direct result of high-cost contracts pushed by the Chicago Teacher’s Union that have made CPS teachers the highest paid of any major city school system in the country.
Stevens is right that the students lives are “punctuated by poverty and violence.” A quality K-12 education is going to be one of the most effective tools to facilitate these students’ escape from poverty and violence. And, sadly, we know that a quality education something the vast majority of students in the CPS system aren’t likely to receive.
For as much praise as Stevens heaped on her local CPS school for encouraging college as early as kindergarten, she should then be deeply concerned by the reality that only 14 out of 100 students in a system responsible for nearly 400,000 will go on to get a bachelor’s degree by the time they are 25.
Sixty-three percent of CPS teachers have graduate degrees, according to this Chicago Magazine piece — something only 13 percent of the general population 25 and over can claim.
“Nationwide, few industries have that kind of educational attainment,” the article states. “Current (Bureau of Labor Statistics) data only gives a few industries in which 60 percent of workers have graduate degrees: Besides education, they’re concentrated in math (mathematicians, statisticians), law, science, non-doctor medical jobs like therapists and nurse practitioners, and a handful of more arcane white-collar jobs like curators and clergy.”
Yes, it’s great that so many teachers have advanced degrees. But I think some caution in how much we read into this is appropriate. One, all graduate degrees are not equal. A graduate degree from the University of Chicago is certainly more challenging and more valuable than one from Chicago State University.
Also, we should be careful not to directly equate completion of a degree with true achievement. After all, CPS is a system where almost 75% of students will graduate (if we completely trust CPS’ numbers, and there’s ample reason not to). But it’s also a system where 79% of CPS 8th graders aren’t proficient in reading, and 80% aren’t proficient in math.
So, sure, it’s great to see that so many teachers have advanced degrees. I just think we should be cautious and circumspect about how much read into this.
I realize Rauner’s statements were empty rhetoric, another attempt to portray the district as hopelessly broken and in dire need of privatization. They were meant to undercut Chicago’s entire teaching force, not accurately characterize 50 percent of them.
But they were also callous and cruel and patently false. And not unlike his “crumbling prisons” comment, they display a complete lack of knowledge about what actually takes place inside the city’s 600-plus schools.
We’ve talked about the crumbling prisons before.
Rauner’s claims might be a lot of things, but “patently false” is not one of them. Stevens isn’t just saying she disagrees with his assessment. She’s saying he’s completely wrong. A 2008 study by the Illinois Education Research Council found that the average score for CPS teachers on the ACT test was shocking 19 out of a possible 36.
Really pause and think about that for a moment. The average ACT score for CPS teachers is 19. This means, roughly, that for every teacher who scored a 30 on the ACT, there is someone teacher somewhere in the CPS system that scored a 12. The 25-75th percentile range for enrolled college students is 24-28 on the test. The average CPS teacher’s ACT score is below the 25th percentile.
Perhaps this adds some perspective to who the CTU has pushed so vehemently against teacher evaluations? The union has an inherent incentive to want the labor force to be as large as possible. After all, more teachers mean more money paid to the union in dues. It’s the veritable definition of a perverse incentive.
He wasn’t governor when he wrote it, but he’s governor now. And he’s the governor of the entire state: every school district, every teacher, every family, every child. He would do well to stop dividing and demonizing us, and start actually governing us.
I’m glad that Heidi Stevens has had a well-above-average experience in the Chicago Public Schools system. I’m glad her interactions with CPS teachers have been impressive. That still doesn’t make them truly representative.
There are most certainly good, hardworking, caring, accomplished, excellent teachers in the Chicago Public Schools system. But there are also teachers who can’t cut it. The results produced by the system speak for themselves.