Anecdotes Are Not Data
If you spend any time reading and listening to debates about education in Missouri, you encounter a lot of arguments that don’t hold water. I saw a version of one such argument on Twitter recently from a member of the Missouri House. You can read the tweet here, but the basic idea is something along the lines of “Well, you claim Missouri public schools are in really bad shape, but I went to a Missouri public school, and I turned out fine.” (I am not trying to pick on this particular legislator—I have seen this argument in many other places.)
This is a weak argument for several reasons. The first is that people rise out of adverse circumstances and attain success all the time. Human beings are resourceful and resilient. We’re all familiar with numerous stories of people who grew up in less-than-ideal situations and still achieved great things. The relevant question with public schools is whether kids are growing up and thriving because of their public schools, or in spite of them.
There’s also the question of how far isolated examples take you. The plural of anecdote is never data. And the data about Missouri public schools do not paint a rosy picture. Per the most recent Nation’s Report Card, 40 percent of Missouri 4th-graders scored Below Basic in reading, and 39 percent of 8th graders scored Below Basic in math. Below Basic indicates that a given student doesn’t even have a “partial mastery of the knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work.”
The fact that vast swathes of Missouri students don’t even have partial understanding of the work at their grade level ought to be deeply concerning. Thousands of kids in Missouri are being left behind, and I don’t imagine that the families of those kids would be comforted to know that some kids in some other places around the state ended up doing alright. How many personal success stories does it take to make it okay that huge numbers of Missouri children can’t do math or read at grade level?
There are other holes to poke in this argument—the people who are success stories as adults today went to Missouri public schools decades ago in many cases, and our schools, per the numbers, are getting worse, not better. There’s also a perception that public schools in Missouri are only struggling in certain pockets of the state—particularly in our big cities. But even a cursory tour of the Institute’s school rankings website reveals that this isn’t true; there are underperforming schools in every corner of Missouri.
There’s nothing wrong with pointing out success stories from Missouri public schools. But one shouldn’t miss the forest for the trees and mistake these stories as an important indicator of the overall health of Missouri’s education system. Our standards simply need to be higher. Some kids doing okay isn’t anywhere close to good enough. We shouldn’t be content until all Missouri kids have a chance at a quality education. And I don’t see how you could argue that we’re anywhere close to that right now.