Journalists Who Make Claims About Educational Practice Without Hard Evidence

May 21, 2008 | Blog

This is part 1 of a continuing series…

Today’s example: Susan Kinzie of the Washington Post.

In Sunday’s WaPo Kinzie wrote an upbeat article about a University of Virginia administrator (Sylvia Terry) who really cares about the success of college students, particularly minority students struggling to make it on that elite Southern campus. Overall, a nice portrait of someone who appears to be a nice woman.

But Kinzie’s judgment lapsed when she wrote her lead:
“More black students graduate from the University of Virginia within six years than from any other public university in the country, and here’s why: institutional commitment, an admissions process that selects strong students, generous financial aid and a network of peer advisers.”

While Kinzie was smart enough to not chalk up UVa’s successes to a single factor or person, and even wise enough to note the selection process which generates an able student population, she made a strong causal statement without citing a shred of empirical support. Did anyone do a multivariate analysis comparing UVa to other schools, identifying factors such as institutional commitment as the drivers setting the school apart from others? I didn’t think so.

The problem with statements like these is that they give the false impression that taking actions like increasing admissions standards or ramping up advising will close black/white gaps in college completion. They *might* but we don’t know that from what Kinzie’s indicated here.

Don’t get me wrong– I don’t disagree with Kinzie’s hypothesis. I just want reporters to accurately depict what we know– and don’t know– about works in education.

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