Phony Numbers

A chronic problem with centralized accountability systems is that they require accurate information from the agent that is being held accountable.  But because people don’t like to squeeze vises on their own hands, they are often tempted to slip out of the vise by fudging the numbers.  And because the centralized authority is often reluctant to squeeze the vise anyway, preferring the happy story that schools are reforming but never reformed, obvious fudging of the numbers is tolerated.

I’ve documented this problem when it comes to graduation rates, which have often been misreported to avoid political embarrassment and accountability sanctions. 

Now David Muhlhausen, Don Soifer, and Dan Lips over at Heritage (with help from Jonetta Rose Barras at the Washington Examiner) have uncovered a new type of phony numbers — school crime and safety information. 

The Heritage report used Freedom of Information requests to the D.C. police to find reports of violence and criminal activity at DC schools.  The prevalence of violence and criminal activity is shocking and helps explain why students may be so eager to get vouchers for private schools or switch to charter schools.

But if you look at the officially reported numbers that D.C. schools report to the U.S. Department of Education in the “Indicators of School Crime and Safety,” as they are required to do by our centralized accountability law, you’d get a completely different (and almost certainly misleading) picture.

According to the Heritage report based on FOI requests of police records, there were 860 violent incidents at D.C. public schools during the 2007-08 school year, including 1 murder, 41 sex offenses, and 608 assaults.  But according to the office that submits the official D.C. crime and safety information to the U.S. Dept of Ed, there were only 40 violent crimes during that same period.  What happened to the other 820 that were reported to the police?

The difference between the crime and safety numbers reported for accountability purposes and those discovered through FOI requests to the police is huge.  They differ by a factor of 20!

I have to confess that stories like this shake my confidence in our ability to improve public schools through centralized accountability systems.

CORRECTION — I wrote “vice” when I meant “vise.”  That’s a great Freudian slip.

5 Responses to Phony Numbers

  1. I have to confess that stories like this shake my confidence in our ability to improve public schools through centralized accountability systems.

    It won’t matter, I think. We seem at this point committed to building a regime of lies. Having traded freedom for promises, we can expect an endless torrent of ideological rhetoric and faked numbers.

  2. allen says:

    Oh, I don’t think that’s true.

    As Jay rightly infers, the problem is in part the result of a centralized accountability system. But the other part of the problem is that there’s not much to nothing in the way of an incentive to report truthfully. While the rotten schools have an incentive to lie about how rotten, or unsafe, they are the safe schools get nothing to reward them for being safe. That biases the behavior of school administrations in the direction of doing the minimum necessary to attain a safe school environment.

    • Greg Forster says:

      As Jay rightly infers

      Homer: Just what are you inferring?

      Lisa: I’m not inferring anything!

      Homer: Whew! That’s a relief.

      Lisa (sotto voce): You infer, I imply.

  3. Minnesota Kid says:

    “I have to confess that stories like this shake my confidence in our ability to improve public schools through centralized accountability systems.”

    And what confidence previously existed to be shaken, pray tell?

  4. Shakes says:

    The churn the numbers to such a great extent that the numbers become useless. Where is the baseline for comparison to next year? Who cares, they will just make up the numbers again.

    And I bet if you asked for the raw data they would say they can’t give it to you because it would violate the privacy of the students involved. So you can’t find out which crimes were actually counted and which were swept under the carpet.

    I don’t trust any number given out by any government school system. In Cincinnati some schools faked gains to keep the students ineligible for Edchoice. And then they started consolidating and renaming schools to get a fresh slate so that past results couldn’t be used to apply for vouchers. Since this isn’t my blog I won’t add a few cuss words about how I really feel about them.

    Crooks, Liars and Frauds. The only work they seem to do is to work to hold onto their own power.

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