Education Statistics Thrown Around Like they Mean Something

By Gus Bouchard

After the governor’s latest hissyfit, this time over charter schools, political junkies are falling all over themselves to dig up statistics and fling them at each other, as if that does any good whatsoever.

It’s like a policy version of trench warfare.

Depending whom you want to believe, Maine’s public education system is either one of the worst or one of the best.  For example, a paper published by the National Association for Giving a Shit about Education ranks Maine in the top 15 nationally in terms of students using correct grammar in their graffiti postings.  Meanwhile, a competing study commissioned by Governor LePage’s mismanaged anti-psychotic medications declares that Maine is 49th in the country in education, and will be 51st “once Puerto Rico becomes a state,” which is bound to happen any century now, right?

I think the safest thing we can say about public education in Maine is that it’s different.  Comparing us to Florida makes no sense.  It’s apples and oranges.  Literally.

I don't know what's stranger: the fact that LePage apparently said "please," or the fact that the BDN insists on continuing to use this photo of him standing in front of those creepy-looking MEA bosses.

I don’t know what’s stranger: the fact that LePage apparently said “please,” or the fact that the BDN insists on continuing to use this photo of him standing in front of those creepy-looking MEA bosses.

Yes, Florida has 57 superintendents for 2.7 million students, and we have 127 superintendents for 187,000 students.  On the surface, that sure looks like we Yankees love us up some superintendency!

Except that the comparison is meaningless, because I’ll bet you my best Sunday trousers that Florida has about a zillion more Assistant Superintendents, Curriculum Coordinators, Principals, Assistant Principals, Athletic Directors, Assistant Athletic Directors, and football coaches making way the hell more money than even our highest paid Superintendents.

Maybe a more accurate measure of fiscal efficiency would be “administrative cost per student.”  Except that Maine’s “per student” cost is always going to be higher because we have so darn few students (it’s a math thing; you’d understand it if you had gone to school someplace else).

We also insist on having a relatively large number of schools with relatively few students in them, which is also not very efficient.  In Maine, a school of 1,000 kids is considered wicked huge.  In Florida, that’s barely the size of an average high school history class.

So let’s dispense with the number wars, shall we?  If smart people would spend less time Googling for any bit of data they can find that supports their opinion, and more time figuring out logistical middle ground that everyone could live with on the charter school issue, we might actually stumble into some progress, God forbid.




  1. Let me see if I’ve got this right. One set of statistics cancels out another set of statistics so let’s find a middle ground where facts don’t matter. Corollary: LePage doesn’t have a reform agenda. He just throws hissy fits—unlike newspaper editors who never throw hissy fits, except maybe about LePage’s hissy fits.

  2. Excellent!

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