Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Correlation does not imply Causation

Back in high school (ah, good old Montgomery Blair!), I took AP Psych with Mr. Apple-something-or-other. I spent most of my time I should have been in class dining on grilled cheese and french fries at the old Wayne Avenue Tastee Diner in Silver Spring (before it moved to Cameron and became a family restaurant), but that is irrelevant to the issue at hand. Even between my extended periods of truancy, I picked up on a basic precept of soft-science research--as the title of my post should indicate. (I believe not adhering to it is also a logical fallacy, but I have not the fancy Latin terms at my disposal--maybe it's the "slippery slope" one or something. But I digress...)

When it comes to the NCLB devil (that's Bush's single piece of domestic policy widely considered "successful" by people who don't know what they are talking about), articles like this one really get my goat (whatever is the origin of that lovely expression?). For those of you too lazy to click over to MSNBC, let me draw your attention to the part that irritates me.

The article is about a new study that found gains in test scores and no widening of the achievement gap in many states since 2003. The blindingly optimistic title of the article, "Scores rise since 'No Child Left Behind' signed," overshadows the disturbing implication that we should attribute a piece of legislation that has been poorly implemented at best to this increase in achievement over the last four years. The subtitle of the article, easily ignored by politicians, reads "Study's authors unsure whether to credit law for gains."

Yes. That's right. The AUTHORS of the study (who were likely funded by the government to prove how great NCLB is) were unwilling to credit the law that the journalists and politicians immediately held up as the single cause for rejoicing. Questions about the ability to even call these "gains" cited by the study an achievement aside, Amit Paley does point out the irony (albeit unwittingly):
"The study's authors warned that it is difficult to say whether or how much the No Child Left Behind law is driving the achievement gains. But Republican and Democratic supporters of the law said the findings indicate that it has been a success."

Um... ok politicians. Because you are clearly more qualified than the authors of the study to interpret its results, right?

I also began teaching since 2003, but I don't think anyone in Congress would appreciate it if I claimed single-handed credit for the rise in test scores around the nation since that time (yes, I'm THAT good!), even if the authors are not able to conclusively credit me for the gain. Or let's credit the failure to end the Iraq war, or increased awareness about global warming since An Inconvenient Truth (jeez... is there ANYTHING Al Gore can't legitimately claim credit for this way?), or the increased Harry Potter phenomenon? All of that's happened since 2003...

The institution of public education in this country is too complex a being to credit any single piece of legislature, person, or event with substantive changes; like all such pervasive institutions, change happens over time and history looks on the multifaceted contributors to change as "movements," of which these individual items are a part. The NCLB legislation is one piece of a standards-based educational reform movement that began in the late 70s as people like Jonathan Kozol drew attention to the statistical data we now label the Achievement Gap. It is fueled by an increased (and disproportionally skewed) value in quantitative data and analysis over qualitative and case study research that has permeated many academic fields (including medicine and law) over the last 50 years. Perhaps this is related in some ways to a more global consumer-driven market, but who really knows? As I said, no single cause can really pin it down.

But politicians love their sound bytes. The U.S. society in general shies away from complexity and qualified statements with alarming rapidity; we fear most what cannot be explained by a man as simple as the one we've elected president. Just remember (for those of you who have actually followed me this far into the quagmire): the headache that you have now may correlate to your having read this post, but I abdicate responsibility regarding causation!

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