Why Wardynski’s “Efficiency” Argument Is A Logical Fallacy

I took this photo with Pro HDR for the iPhone!

Last week when Challen Stevens of the Huntsville Times reported that Huntsville City Schools had cut special education too deeply, Dr. Wardynski responded with a typically anti-government (and completely unfounded) response. This response led to a logical fallacy:

“This is why the United States is going bankrupt,” said Wardynski, speaking of the requirement to maintain spending levels. “There is no room for being efficient and effective.”

Dr. Craig Pouncey, the deputy state superintendent, echoed his remarks by saying:

Where else other than Washington would not reward good stewardship and efficiency?

This theme of blaming Washington and their “illogical” laws was picked up on Thursday in a Times editorial by Anthony Cook which claims:

In the years preceding 2011, the system was bloated, employing hundreds more support personnel than necessary.

AYP AYP AYP

For evidence, these three all cite one simple, and seemingly clear statistic: Huntsville City Schools made AYP in 2011-2012 for the first time since 2009-2010.

And that’s the totality of the evidence that they cite in support of the system having broken the law in the summer of 2011. We made AYP with 41% fewer special education aides than we had in 2010-2011, so clearly we did not need those aides at all.

That one claim was all it took for the Superintendent, the Huntsville City Schools Board of Education, the deputy State Superintendent, and the Huntsville Times community news director to claim that breaking the law is completely justifiable. While I’ve already pointed out the ridiculousness of this claim in an earlier post (“efficiency” is a weak justification for breaking the law), it seems that for some “efficiency” is still all that’s required to deem a law illogical.

Obscure Truth With A Logical Fallacy

That being the case, perhaps it’s time to remind our city and state officials about logical fallacies. A logical fallacy is a mistake in logic that allows something that is in fact illogical to appear logical. If we wish to know and understand the truth, we must learn to identify logical fallacies when they occur, otherwise we might be tricked into believing that something that is false is actually true.

Fallacies come in many forms: from Slippery Slope (if we do this particular action, the worst possible outcome will result), to Begging the Question (you must accept that X is true because X claims to be true), to one of my favorites (just because it allows me to show off my Latin): post hoc ergo propter hoc, or “after this therefore because of this.”

post hoc ergo propter hoc

Just because one event came after another event does not mean that the first event caused the second.

And this is the central problem with Dr. Wardynski’s proof for efficiency.

He claims, and a ton of people in powerful positions seem to believe him, that since the district made AYP with 41% fewer Special Education aides, then those Special Education aides are clearly unnecessary.

We didn’t make AYP in 2010-2011 with 41% more aides, but we did make AYP in 2011-2012 with 41% fewer.

Numbers clearly don’t lie.

Except, of course when they do.

Here’s the problem: Just because these two events happened does not demonstrate any direct connection between the two events.

Oranges Make Me A Better Employee

For example, this morning when I got up, I ate an orange. Sometimes I eat an apple, but today I ate an orange. Later today, during an evaluation at work, I received an excellent evaluation. Therefore, clearly and irrefutably, I received a good evaluation at work because I ate an orange.

This is fundamentally the same argument that the superintendent is making concerning the “efficiency” of placing 41% of the personnel cuts on 12% of the student population.

We had 41% too many aides and didn’t make AYP. We have 41% fewer aides and made AYP. Since A comes before Z; therefore, A causes Z. Case closed.

Except, of course, that the facts don’t support this claim.

If they did, then why did the district manage to make AYP in 2009-2010? You see in 2009-2010, the district had even more aides in the system than it did in 2010-2011 when it laid off 99 of them in the RIF. If fewer aides leads directly to higher test scores, as the superintendent claims, then it would follow that in a year when there were even more aides working in the district, that the district would have failed to make AYP for the year.

If firing aides led to higher test scores, then how is it possible that in a year when there were even a greater number of aides working in the district, the district managed to make AYP?

Maybe more of our special education students were eating oranges on test day in 2009-2010 than in 2010-2011?

Remember When Tests Were Used To Evaluate Students?

The simple truth here is that not everything in education can be effectively evaluated by a standardized test. Students know this. Teachers know this. Principals know this. Parents know this. It seems the only people who don’t know it are Dr. Wardynski, Dr. Pouncey, and Mr. Cook. Tests are flawed tools for evaluating a student’s performance/knowledge at a single moment in time.

They are not an effective evaluation of teacher performance nor of the necessity of instructional assistants. And when they are used that way, which is exactly how the superintendent is using them, they will lead to fallacious arguments that bury the truth under intentionally misleading “data.”

If Wardynski had been listening during philosophy rather than dreaming of ways of ruining school systems, maybe we wouldn’t be having to send $2.6 million dollars back to the federal government for breaking the law.

That, Mr. Cook, is the logical thing to have done.

 
Russell
"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.

26 Comments

  1. Not one of your stronger arguments. Is there a Latin term for “really bad analogy”?

    You’re correct that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. You are also correct that crediting your work evaluation on what you had for breakfast that morning would be silly. On the other hand, if you got a bad evaluation last year when you ate apples every morning, and you then got a good evaluation after eating oranges all year, you might have to at least consider the possibility that your breakfast habits had an impact on your job performance.

    I agree that tests do not measure everything, and I frankly have no idea what effect reducing SPED staff had on the kids they teach. But you didn’t really advance your argument very well with this post. On the contrary, all of your finger-wagging at Wardynski about logic and fallacious arguments looks pretty silly in light of such an obviously illogical analogy.

    1. Ben, I think the point is that the “test scores are great” argument is the ONLY justification the Superintendent gave for the reduction in funding. If he truly felt that such an extreme reduction in teachers/aides were justified he’d offer other proofs to the writer of the article showing how students are safer, they are in their least restrictive environments, they are well-rounded in their educational experience, in addition to (where applicable) their test scores are higher. Alas, all the administration wants to ever do is hold on to the “We’re meeting the requirements of IEPs” (they aren’t, can’t be proven/demonstrated) for as long as it takes until they are sued (“we have recourse”).

      1. I agree that Wardynski’s AYP argument is highly suspect. I just don’t think Russell did a particularly good job in this case of making that point.

        1. So, Ben, to put it another way:
          Because the laying off of SPED aides was done BEFORE Wardynski was hired, I could use Russ’ logic to say that these layoffs of SPED aides caused Wardynski to be hired. Hmm?

    2. The analogy was intentionally chosen to illustrate the weakness of Wardynski’s justification for breaking the law.

      Thanks for letting me know that it worked. 🙂

      1. But that’s kind of the point: It doesn’t illustrate the weakness of Wardynski’s argument because the analogy itself is so flawed.

  2. Let’s focus in the “really bad analogy” instead of the substance of the post.

    “The simple truth here is that not everything in education can be effectively evaluated by a standardized test. Students know this. Teachers know this. Principals know this. Parents know this. It seems the only people who don’t know it are Dr. Wardynski, Dr. Pouncey, and Mr. Cook. Tests are flawed tools for evaluating a student’s performance/knowledge at a single moment in time.

    They are not an effective evaluation of teacher performance nor of the necessity of instructional assistants. And when they are used that way, which is exactly how the superintendent is using them, they will lead to fallacious arguments that bury the truth under intentionally misleading “data.”

    If Wardynski had been listening during philosophy rather than dreaming of ways of ruining school systems, maybe we wouldn’t be having to send $2.6 million dollars back to the federal government for breaking the law.”

  3. In 2011-2012, we made AYP with the aging school buildings at Grissom/Whitesburg/etc., so clearly we don’t need new buildings.

    In 2011-2012, we made AYP with pencil and paper, so clearly we don’t need computers for everyone.

    In 2009-2010, we made AYP with our previous Superintendent, so clearly we didn’t need our current one.

    Cause and effect arguments are the hardest to prove.

    1. Bingo, bonehead. And given that AYP status is routinely rigged by school systems, this particular correlation is particularly suspect.

    2. Again, Ben, so that I can learn: how is bonehead’s argument so much more sound than mine? He’s making exactly the same point that I’m making. (Bonehead, feel free to contradict me on this as well if you wish.)

      1. You’re a smart guy, so I’m honestly struggling to understand your confusion here. I thought I was pretty clear the first time, but O.K., I’m game.

        The SPED personnel were absent for the entire year, and the AYP designation (supposedly) reflected the progress made by the students during the course of that year. One can therefore make at least a prima facie argument that the loss of SPED personnel had no negative academic impact on the kids.

        In your analogy, you compared this situation to crediting a good review at work (given presumably for your efforts during the previous year) to what you had for breakfast the morning of your performance review. Obviously, what you have for breakfast the day of your review is irrelevant to how your review turns out.

        Your analogy would be apt only if Wardynski laid-off SPED personnel the day AYP results were released then used the positive AYP numbers to “prove” that the layoffs had no negative impact on the kids.

        Bonehead, on the other hand, was on point because all the situations cited (old school buildings, pencil & paper, etc.) occurred over a whole school year.

        Clear now?

        1. Thank you for offering your explanation. As I mentioned to you before, I was actually attempting to demonstrate the ridiculousness of Dr. Wardynski’s argument that a reduction in the number of aides improved AYP performance for SPED students by making a claim that was equally ridiculous, or if you prefer “absurd.” My defense of the absurdity is that Dr. Wardynski’s claim is equally absurd. I think your willingness to grant his claim credibility is mistaken, but it’s certainly okay to be wrong. Happens to me all the time.

          Aides do not have a direct correlation to test results.

          Not everything, as I said in the post, of value in a school can be directly tied to testing results. The test isn’t designed to evaluate aide effectiveness (nor teacher effectiveness for that matter). Dr. Wardynski’s claim that a reduction of aides directly led to an increase in test scores is just as silly as my claiming that eating an orange led to a good evaluation.

          Yes, your point is clear now. I’m so sorry to have troubled you, but since you were the one raising the issue, I thought it best to go to the source. The point of having these posts open for comments is so that people may actually make an attempt to better understand one another.

          Thank you for your willingness to help us all understand your point of view.

          1. “If firing aides led to higher test scores, then how is it possible that in a year when there were even a greater number of aides working in the district, the district managed to make AYP?”

  4. Am I correct in understanding that the reason for Huntsville City School’s newly found AYP status is due to the Restart program made available for the schools that have continually failed to reach their AYP goals? Twelve (12) of HCS failed to meet their AYP benchmarks in 2012, and most of these did not meet the Special Ed benchmark. Furthermore, five out of six of HCS high schools did not meet their AYP goals. I find it difficult to understand why the “W” is bragging about this “achievement.”

  5. Referring to “justify replacing textbooks with computers”. I am a parent volunteer at my child’s school. Today, I overheard a comment that students are now going to get textbooks instead of the recently promised CD’s of textbooks. So I asked an administrator and was told yes, supposedly students would be receiving the text books, even the “consumable ones.”

    Now, my question is, why did HCS spend all this money on computers and digital technology only to go back to text books. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad my children will be getting books, but why couldn’t they get this right before school started? I feel like my children have started this year behind.

  6. OK folks, it’s time to point out the obvious.

    You just don’t know who you’re dealing with.

    You think you’re dealing with an educator.

    =====>You are not.<======

    You are dealing with a retired US Army colonel. There is a huge difference.

    In the US Army, allegiance, obedience, and respect are highly valued qualities. I have worked with some retired US Army colonels. Many of them readily shed their uniforms at retirement and cannot be distinguished from lifelong civilians. Others effectively continue to wear their uniforms under their civilian clothes, and are mostly puzzled that nobody salutes them or addresses them by Sir. You are dealing with the latter.

    I am reminded of Audrey II's serenade from Little Shop of Horrors. You don't know who you're messin' with.

    http://www.stlyrics.com/songs/l/littleshopofhorrors24792/meangreenmother917987.html

    Seriously. Step back, and stop thinking of your superintendent as Dr. Wardynski. Think of him as Colonel Wardynski and the behaviors will make a lot more sense.

    David

  7. Can’t wait to see another one of the Colonel’s famed power point presentations. He will probably present it at the conclusion of tomorrow night’s board meeting, ….you know…. after the Citizen Comments. It will justify his reason(s) for not following obediently and showing allegiance to the federal government’s guidelines (relative to Huntsville City School’s special education funding).

    Perhaps we could all salute him afterwards.

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