What We Measure Shapes How We Think

I just came across this headline from The Virginian-Pilot:

In Virginia Beach, white students are nearly twice as likely to return for in-person classes than Black students.

In Virginia Beach, 72% of white students and just 38% of Black students have chosen to return for in-person classes as schools have reopened.

I couldn’t read the full story because it resides behind a pay wall. But I would be surprised if the article doesn’t try to explain the racial discrepancy. There very well may be race-based reasons why blacks are returning at only half the rate of whites, but we should not assume that to be the case. Sociological or socio-economic reasons might better explain the differential.

The problem is that we know the race of public school students because we measure it. We also measure a single metric of socioeconomic status, “disadvantaged” versus “non-disadvantaged” based on participation in school lunch programs. If our analysis is largely limited to this data, it is easy to assume that these factors are driving school attendance.

Let’s look at the numbers a different way. Twenty-eight percent of white students are staying home, and 62% of black students are staying home. Clearly, factors that apply to both races are at work. What are the characteristics of those households? 

Do the stay-at-homes tend to be poor families with unemployed bread winners — or lower-income families with working parents? Do many stay-at-homes come from middle-class families? How many parents are there in the family? Are two-parent households more or less likely to send their children back to school? Is the number of children in the household a factor? Do stay-at-home students tend to live in more crowded living conditions, or in multigenerational households with elderly grandparents, or with parents who still haven’t been vaccinated? We don’t track those statistics, therefore we tend to exclude them in any analysis of what’s happening inside our schools.

When the only prisms you use to examine issues are race and income, every disparity looks like a problem of race or income. I hope the Virginian-Pilot article didn’t fall into that trap.


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9 responses to “What We Measure Shapes How We Think”

  1. vicnicholls Avatar

    Jim, sent you the article. I’ll see if you modify the story based on it.

  2. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    The RTD had a recent list of the Henrico schools, showing the % of students returning to class and those not. It didn’t break down by race, but if you know the schools/neighborhoods you could see the same pattern. The constant media drumbeat for a year has been that COVID is more dangerous based on race. You can slice the data different ways but the conventional wisdom has settled in as revealed truth, and no luck challenging that.

  3. “Let’s look at the numbers a different way. Twenty-eight percent of white students are staying home, and 72% of black students are staying home.”

    That would be 62%, Mr. Bacon, not 72%.

    1. Thanks! Where would I be without readers to proof read my copy?

      And next time I accuse other journalists of innumeracy, feel free to remind me of that careless mistake.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    the difference in races is in more places than just Virginia.

    and re: ” “disadvantaged” versus “non-disadvantaged”

    to point out – it’s NOT “free lunch”, it’s “Free and Reduced” – no?

    there are different levels of economically disadvantaged even though represented as just not or yes.

    By the way, also, there are other articles that claim that Asians LIKE remote/virtual learning!

  5. Matt Hurt Avatar
    Matt Hurt

    Since the advent of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), not all student receiving free or reduced lunch is considered economically disadvantaged. They use to be, but now all students in CEP schools receive free lunch, even if their parents are doctors and lawyers. In those schools, only students who are direct certified (receive TANF or other such governmental subsidies) are labeled as economically disadvantaged.

    All of the kids of the poor working families who used to be certified for free/reduced lunch with a lunch form no longer have to turn in that form to receive free lunch. They have, therefore, been cured of their economic disadvantagement.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      well, sort of: ” To be eligible to operate CEP, a school or group of schools within a district must have an Identified Student Percentage (ISP) of 40% or higher. To calculate ISP, a school must count all of the students who are categorically eligible for free school meals and divide by total student enrollment.”


      1. Matt Hurt Avatar
        Matt Hurt

        Yes sir. My comment was about economically disadvantaged students in a CEP school. All students who receive free/reduced lunches in non-CEP schools are identified as economically disadvantaged. Only direct certified students in CEP schools are identified as economically disadvantaged.

        The point is that a student could be identified as economically disadvantaged in a CEP school, and not economically disadvantaged in a non-CEP school.

  6. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Well, given the demographics of the disease, and if the choice of staying home is pre-complete immunization, then the household generational profile might come into play. Or even if grandparents provide sitting services.

    Too many unknowns

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