By Brad Hughes
KSBA Director of Member Support/Communications Services
The school board member on the other end of the phone line was incensed. It seems that a board member in a nearby district was campaigning for re-election and using data-based claims that were, in the caller’s opinion, purposely fuzzy at best and downright falsehoods at worst.
His bottom line was that KSBA has a responsibility to encourage – if not to press – its members to be completely honest in all aspects of communicating with the public.
The conversation reminded me of what novelist Mark Twain wrote in his 1906 autobiography: “Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them to myself; in which case the remark attributed to (British Prime Minister Benjamin) Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.’”
Obviously, if any elected official plays fast and loose with numbers – whether to win re-election, to put the district in a positive light or for any other reason – that’s unethical. But there is that “eye of the beholder” thing. What one speaker may honestly maintain is a truthful statement can be just as earnestly challenged when the total facts of that situation aren’t reflected in the message as relayed.
How school leaders make use of data should be a point of caution – not just about campaign ads but, more importantly, how skilled some folks have become in crunching numbers and crafting messages that place themselves or their districts in a flattering spotlight that may not be completely deserved.
Using data honestly
Let’s be very clear here: I’m not suggesting district leaders should shy away from telling their success stories. Far from it. In fact, through KSBA, I train board members and superintendents that sharing the good news is a responsibility that goes with a position of leadership.
Rankings. K-PREP, ACT or AP scores. In-state or national comparisons. Tax rate actions. Voting and/or attendance records. Even KSBA’s Academy of Studies can become fodder for campaigns to re-elect or defeat a school board member, pass or block nickel taxes and justify whether a superintendent merits a new contract. As long as the statistics accurately portray reality, these kinds of numbers can be used to instill confidence in the direction and leadership of a school district.
Yet who hasn’t seen an advertisement of a movie review quoted as “amazing” when the full reviewer’s commentary was far less praising? Or the survey whose respondents “overwhelmingly” endorsed an action – from a response rate of less than 20 percent of those quizzed?
The words “transparent” and “ethical” are bandied about a lot these days. Can a transparent, ethical official or institution be considered truthful if claims are based only in part on fact rather than really being wholly factual?
Can a school candidly be said to be among the top 10 percent in the state when the “rest of the story” is that the school is in the top 10 percent of a portion of all high schools based on a single measure of progress?
The Last Word
As Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt talks up his hopes for a new state accountability system, he frequently refers to his desire that collaboration rather than competition among districts will be a result of the pending redesign of measuring school progress.
A noble goal, albeit one that will carry its own challenges to district leaders.
Are you in “collaboration” when you take notice of data that shows your district had the highest math scores of all neighboring systems? Are you “competing” when you celebrate that your high school had the greatest rate of science score progress in the region? If you accept a state school/district rating system that doesn’t draw attention to improvement in an academic area where you got dinged the year before, are you selling short the teachers, administrators and students who made that headway?
Putting yourself or your school system in an authentically positive representation is important – just make sure someone else can’t call your numbers – and your veracity – into question over your claim.
And that’s a message worth getting out.