Checking the Fact-checkers
Politifact Missouri has a new “Fact Check” out on the Governor’s statement in his State of the State Address that over 200 districts in Missouri do not offer Physics. That data point comes from a research paper we published over a year ago (which we have since updated). After our corrections, our overall numbers align pretty closely with those from Politifact (the author found 178 districts with no students enrolled, 156 districts if you counted a course called “Physics First”).
But once the hard numbers were established, the article started to go off the rails.
First, the author makes the case that Physics First should be counted as “Physics” for the purpose of measuring course access. I disagree. Physics First is, by the author’s own admission, an “introductory science course.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with introductory courses, but if we allow Physics First to “count” as the only physics course offered in a district, we are defining our expectations down severely. Just like we would want a district that only offered Geometry or Algebra to step up its game, so too should we if it only offers Physics First.
The author then proceeds to use overall physics enrollment in the state to make the case that Missouri is not behind the rest of the nation when it comes to Physics. The problem is that overall enrollment numbers don’t have a lot to do with course access. Sure, Missouri might have one of the higher rates of Physics enrollment around the nation, but how is it distributed? Given the population patterns of the state, high enrollment in our cities and suburbs could mask the fact that rural students don’t have access to higher level courses. Given the author’s own findings that 178 districts don’t offer advanced Physics, this very well might be the case.
But perhaps most problematic is the blurred line between fact and opinion. Whether we should count Physics First is a judgment call on which reasonable people can disagree. The author assumes that the Governor was using the Physics course access statistic to buttress a point about Missouri being behind on academic indicators. I took it as a simple statement that not enough districts offer Physics. Again, reasonable people can disagree. When we look at the hard numbers (not counting Physics First) from 2014-15, the Governor was off by less than 5 percent. If we look at our updated 2015-16 numbers, he was off by less than 3 percent. That doesn’t strike me as being “mostly false,” but I’ll leave that for readers to decide.
That said, I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole of debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. We cannot lose sight of the fact that, whatever you think on the question of defining Physics courses, far too many school districts do not offer higher-level classes. This includes not only Physics, but Calculus and AP classes as well. And those are not just statistics, but real children’s lives that are being denied the opportunity to get the education they need. Let’s focus our energy on fixing that.