Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Data Danger in the Appointed Superintendent Debate

A logical fallacy is an error in reasoning.  Sometimes, a logical fallacy erupts as a debate tactic and at other times, it emerges innocently through a simple failure to properly connect the logical dots.  The argument in support of an appointed superintendent in Florida, while well-meaning for the most part contains logical fallacies that citizens should watch for.

Citizens are receiving flyers in their mail and some are seeing posts on web sites and on social media that associate Escambia County's standardized test score ranking with the fact that the county elects its superintendent rather than appoint him or her.  The not-so-subtle implication is that the ranking is due to the fact that the citizens of Escambia County elect their superintendent rather than leave it to three school board members to appoint them.

Of course, they cite the most dramatic data that shows the school district in its worst light with respect to the rest of the state, then they arrive at the conclusion that since many school districts of a size similar to Escambia have higher test scores and also have appointed superintendents, there must be a connection.

However, that false cause-and-effect connection ignores the studies that have established that whether a superintendent is elected or appointed is not a predictor of student or district performance or success.

Making that flawed causal connection is the logical fallacy, just as it would be a logical fallacy for those on the other side of the debate to claim that since 60% of Florida's "A" school districts have elected superintendents, having an elected superintendent is the superior approach.

Since we can't conclude much from that data that establishes a causal linkage to how we select our superintendent, we wonder if there is data that we can use, data that is accurate and relevant?

Maybe we can consider trend data.  Is it possible and is it relevant to look at ALL school districts that have elected superintendents and compare their performance trends to ALL school districts that have appointed superintendents?  Can we learn anything from examining "right direction/wrong direction," trend data?  Maybe so.

As we've seen from Florida Department of Education (FDOE) data, 60% of Florida's "A" school districts are led by elected superintendents.  That leaves 40% of "A" school districts being led by appointed superintendents.  If the appointed superintendent format was the superior way to select a superintendent, it seems that trends would favor that approach.

However, that 40% figure for school districts that are led by appointed superintendents is DOWN from where it was just 8 years ago.  In 2010, 55% of Florida's 26 "A" school districts had APPOINTED superintendents.  In 2015, that percentage fell to 48% of Florida's 21 "A" school districts.  Then, in 2018, their share dropped again to 40% of Florida's 20 "A" school districts.

So, as the percentage of "A" school districts that have APPOINTED superintendents has trended downward over the past 8 years, the percentage of school districts that have ELECTED superintendents has trended upward by the same amount.

Then, when we look at average school district grades on a 5-point grade scale ("A" = 5; "F" = 1), we see that the average school district grade in 2018 for school districts that have ELECTED superintendents is 4.0.  The average school district grade for school districts that have APPOINTED superintendents is 4.1.  One-tenth of a point separates the two approaches to selecting a superintendent!

Looking further, the trend that we saw with "A" school districts follows school district grade averages.

In 2010, the average grade for all school districts that APPOINT their superintendent was 4.6, but in 2015 the average grade slipped to 4.3, then it fell again to 4.1 in 2018.  On the other hand, the average grade for all school districts that ELECT their superintendent rose from 3.9 in 2010 and 2015 to 4.0 in 2018.

By the way, Escambia is a "B" school district.  The school district ranks near the bottom of the state's "B" schools, but it's still a "B" school district.  We want our school district to do better, for sure.  We want it to be an "A" district, but we have a district that has been working hard and improving over the past decade or so.  As we've seen, that progress is important.