Saturday, October 20, 2007

What Do Statistics Tell Us?

I was an impressionable teenager in 1954 when Darrell Huff’s book, “How to Lie with Statistics,” came out. Looking it up just now, I see that the cover image is one of a person sweeping things under a rug.

Huff’s point was that numbers can be arranged lots of ways, depending on the desired effect on the viewer. The lesson that raw numbers are sometimes little more than playthings has stayed with me.

Statistics can be used both for sins of commission and sins of omission. For example, if violence and vandalism go unreported in a particular school, it comes off as a haven of peace compared to the school where staff reports every thrown eraser and each scribble on a desk.

Without a lot more detail, it is hard to understand the statistics on incidents of violence and vandalism in Plainfield schools for 2006-07. Of 127 incidents of violence, Plainfield High School had 34. The next highest are 30 at Cedarbrook Elementary School and 25 at Hubbard Middle School. Cook Elementary School reported 22 incidents. The numbers drop off to six at Maxson Middle School, five at Evergreen Elementary School, two at evening high school and none at Stillman, Barlow, Emerson, Jefferson, Washington and Woodland elementary schools.

No vandalism was reported at Woodland, Jefferson, Evergreen, Emerson, Barlow or Stillman, with single instances at the evening high school, Cedarbrook, Cook, and Washington. Five incidents of vandalism at Maxson were topped by eight at Hubbard and 34 at the high school, totaling 52 in all.

Weapons were reported four times at the high school, three times at Maxson, twice at Hubbard and once at Cedarbrook, Emerson and Woodland, with none at the other schools. Substance abuse was reported twice at the high school and once at the evening high school and Cook.

For all these infractions, there were 196 short-term suspensions, but no expulsions or detentions. The high school had 62, Hubbard had 46, Cedarbrook had 42 and Cook, 23. There were seven at Evergreen, six at Maxson, five at the evening high school and four at Clinton.

Most of the incidents took place in the classroom (71 of 195), with 46 at other locations inside the school and 31 on school grounds.

Interim Schools Superintendent Peter E. Carter said “any human being,” not just students, could have been involved in the reported incidents. So we don’t know from the Department of Education report whether an incident of violence at the high school may have been outsiders having a fight on school grounds. From newspaper reports, we do know that a teacher was attacked and a vice principal was assaulted last year at the high school.

In the NJQSAC report, this startling number turned up:

“It should be noted that testimony at the district’s public forum indicated that last year there were over 500 calls to the local police department regarding student incidents at Plainfield High School. Many interviewees mentioned disruptive student behavior at this school …”

Notice that the report is quoting “testimony” from a member of the public. When Plaintalker asked Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig about the number, he said an individual had made an Open Public Records Act request for police logs on the high school. The total included everything from car crashes on the block to helicopter landings. Tripped alarms and other incidents requiring police response added to the total. Hellwig estimated the number of actual responses to student disruption at 20 to 30 for the year and the state report cited 34 reported incidents of violence last year.

When Carter gave his response to the NJQSAC report, he said he spends a lot of time in the schools. His way of taking the pulse of student behavior is based on what can be seen and heard, he said. He also believes in setting limits and enforcing the rules. Teachers are reporting a much calmer atmosphere at the high school and staff morale is improving.

Can these things be quantified in numbers? The state Department of Education will be back to assess the district in coming months and the tallies of reported incidents will be released again next year. Adequate Yearly Progress scores and many other statistics will be gathered and studied. The state has just declared Plainfield to be a “district in need of improvement” and numbers will be used to measure whether things get better or worse.

The real test of whether the schools are getting better will most likely be an amalgam of those numbers and what parents, students and staff are experiencing day-to-day in the schools. Statistics without context and interpretation can only tell part of the story.

--Bernice Paglia


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