Growing up, my family and I enjoyed watching game shows. Easily our favorite was Family Feud, the American television game show in which two families compete to name the most popular answers to survey questions in order to win cash and prizes.
I can still hear Richard Dawson, the enduring game show host of his time, say aloud, “SURVEY SAYS…?” and the incredibly low-tech billboard would physically turn with a correct answer or a giant red “X” with the most obnoxious buzzing sound if the contestant’s answer was not on the list.
Maybe it was the budding data-nerd in me that liked the show so much. While certainly not scientific data, the “survey” would provide an interesting perspective on the proclivities of American culture in the 1970s and 80s.
That budding data-nerd is a superintendent today. And while too much of an extravert to choose data science as a career myself, as an educational leader I’m drawn to the stories educational data tell. Data has a way, if presented in an unbiased manner and aided with effective visualization, of telling stories sometimes better than words.
You already know this, but we’re living through a period of time where certain political and financial interests twist and misrepresent facts to such a degree that one doesn’t know what is real and what isn’t, only to be left with no clarity at all.
The antidote, in my mind, to mistruths or “alternative facts” is not to turn away from data, but to search for good data that tell meaningful stories.
One morning while filtering through the news, an article in the National Superintendents Roundtable email newsletter caught my eye. The title, “Income distribution by ACT results, 2018: A picture is worth a thousand words” was not what drew me, but at the same time it could not have been more accurate. It was the story’s data visualization that immediately caught my eye. Take a look for yourself...
The story this engaging visual representation is telling is as compelling as the striking design it creates.
So let’s break the two apart.
The Story the Visualization is Telling
The visualization was created by Jon Boeckenstedt, Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at Oregon State University, who blogs and tweets extensively about the problematic role of standardized testing in college admissions. For me, this visualization cuts through the “noise” created by the anti-equity, just “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative. It gets right to the heart of the fact that there is a clear correlation between family income and standardized test results.
Why is that important? Because data also tell us that access to a college education--particularly a selective college education--is a, if not THE, gateway to future potential income generation. In other words, the rich have increased opportunities to get richer and the poor are more likely to stay poor.
Why does this matter? The income inequality gap widens.
This should beg the question, and it certainly does for those of us in education, how do we disrupt this cycle and ensure that family income is not a proxy for academic achievement AND future income earning potential of our children? This question; the one I just posed. Yes, that one right there at the start of this paragraph, italicized for effect IS...equity.
What this graphic also illustrates is that education has thus far NOT found a way to disrupt the reality and very likely it also illustrates that there is some innate bias in standardized testing (and the ACT is supposedly “the better one”).
This is a problem because, while many universities--including the University of California who announced this week they will no longer require any admissions test for applicants--have or are moving away from standardized tests as a requirement for admissions, so many more universities are using these tests as a or the primary measure for admission.
Yes, yes. I know what some are thinking. Isn’t this societal “natural selection” at play? Do we really need to socially engineer outcomes? If education hasn’t already been able to disrupt this reality, then what makes us think it can or should even try now?
To these retorts I offer this. At times knowingly, but often unknowingly, education has been complicit in the propagation of this phenomenon. As more and more of us in education get access to the data--both qualitative and quantitative--and as the income gap gets obviously wider by the day, we are left with only two options: deny reality and continue our complicity OR attempt to disrupt. Since most educators enter education for the good of society, the large majority of us choose to disrupt.
We disrupt by providing greater resources into services that support children who did not have the benefit of high quality preschool. We disrupt by spending extra time after school with those who are struggling to keep up. We disrupt by making sure kids who aren’t eating, get a meal. We disrupt by reaching out to parents who are simply doing the best they can. We disrupt by scheduling small group reteaching instruction in our classroom for students who are behind. We disrupt by showing up even when there’s a global pandemic. We disrupt by ensuring that all of our children see themselves and their stories in our classroom libraries. We disrupt by standing up to hate in all forms.
We also disrupt by calling out the fact that many of the children who perform well on tests like the ACT do so in part because their parents could:
And, not surprisingly, we disrupt by asking the obvious question, “If college entrance exams fail to measure the grit necessary to succeed growing up in poverty, or the value of being bilingual as a result of growing up in a country that does not speak your native language, or the perspective gained through struggle, and if these exams further fail to reflect the innate intelligence, creativity, and talent in individuals beyond the ability to define arcane vocabulary rarely used in career and life, then WHY would it be the or even a determining factor in college admissions?”
What is the goal of disruption? To realize a day in which the potential of a child is NOT defined by his/her/their parents’ income level. That access to college, career, and the opportunity to earn a livable wage and raise their family to achieve as highly as they desire is not defined by how much money their parents earned.
Why “Visual” Data Matters
If you’re following my logic in this blog (and granted, I have not made it easy) you may be left wondering, how does the ACT and education's role in disrupting income inequality connect to data visualization?
It is in effective data visualization’s ability to offer something so stark, so concrete, so undeniable, that we can break through the opaque arguments of partisan talking points and achieve clarity around what is true, real, and actionable. With clarity, we are able to--one can only hope--find common ground and shared purpose. We can triangulate those on opposite sides of arguments and attempt to create solutions that benefit people.
I appreciate this particular visual, not only because the data-nerd in me is drawn to the story it tells, but also because it tells it so clearly.
While I’ve outgrown my interest in Family Feud, I have plenty of room for the kind of concise and compelling data this visualization offers. I hope more data scientists, researchers, and journalists will link up with graphic designers and data visualization experts to tell more visual stories like the one shared by the Vice Provost at OSU inviting the data to tell a more accurate story.
In my imagination, I picture the Provost listening to someone defend college admission exams and choose to tap into his inner Richard Dawson by exclaiming, “SURVEY SAYS?” followed by a picture of this commanding data visualization and a giant “X” appearing on the screen while an obnoxious buzzing sound fills the air.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.