Policy Wonks (Misguidedly) Object To Vox Explainer

Screen shot 2015-07-21 at 3.10.01 PM

Matt Yglesias article and accompanying chart posted on Vox yesterday purported to make the case that the housings costs of homes near high-performing public schools (top right quadrant) make them inaccessible to many middle- and low-income families, and that there are strong disincentives to letting more people live in those areas or dis-connecting school assignment and housing. 

But a handful of smartypants took issue with the article — both seriously and just for the fun of Yglesias-bashing.

Chalkbeat editor Maura Walz thought the Yglesias post might win “the most reductionist piece of education writing this month? year?”  Paul Bruno thought Yglesias was conflating causation with correlation: “Normally this sort of correlation/causation confusion is the kind of thing @voxdotcom would call out.”  Barnum thought that the measure of school quality (percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced) was poor compared to measures of growth that control for demographics. (Bruno joined the bandwagon, noting that Yglesias inaccurately described the test score numbers as indicators of “school effectiveness” – not what they are, “student performance.”

They’re right, technically speaking, but they’re missing the larger point and confusing journalism with policy writing. 

From the point of view of research wonks, correlations between things must not be confused with one causing the other, and using growth measures is essential for a discussion about what schools are good. “If growth arguments are “pointy-headed” this is why we can’t have nice edu-things,” quipped Bruno. 

But I think that there are times when it’s fine to use simple proficiency percentages, and that this was probably one of them. Here’s why:

First and foremost, the Yglesias piece is, like most Vox stories, a journalistic explainer, written in this case from the point of view of a parent — not a policy paper written by or for policymakers. Yglesias wasn’t purporting to do any deep or sophisticated analysis in his piece, or making the claim that higher housing costs and wealthier families caused schools to be better.

Second, the more complicated measure (growth controlling for demographics) doesn’t really contradict the simpler one. (Or, as Barnum put it, “Yes, low-income students often attend the worst schools — but that’s not always the case.”) The basic situation Yglesias describes remains true. 

The way I read the piece, its focus was on exclusionary school zoning patterns rather than inside baseball of school performance. This is something that Senator Elizabeth Warren has raised, and comes up all the time in situations where parents try to fake an address to get into a school zone that they can’t afford.

In this context — in a world in which racial and class segregation plays such a big role in housing and education — getting sidelined in a discussion about what makes a “good” school from a technical or policymaking perspective seems to be a bit of a distraction. 

Last but not least, let’s be real. Given a choice of a school with a high growth score and a school with high scores, I think that most parents would choose the latter. That’s what a “good” school is to most parents, and that’s where they want to send their kids. The question is why they have to be able to afford higher housing costs in order to have their kids assigned to schools with higher scores.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.