Lies, Damned Lies and Infographics

kid with books
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An infographic appeared on First Book today. Go take a look at it and come back. I’ll wait.


Interesting right? I know what we are supposed to take from this infographic and I certainly don’t dispute it. Kids in lower income neighborhood have far less access to books. Because the sources of this data are concealed in a too-tiny-to-read footnote and because what I can read of the footnote seems to suggest that this “Books Make a Difference in Kids’ Lives” infographic was collated from three other First Book PDFs I have a few questions. I’ve tried to find these sources and have given up.  As I said, I’m not disputing the claims of this infographic; I’m simply objecting to the simplistic and obfuscating use of statistics.

What does 1 book per 300 children in lower income communities mean? Are they counting only books owned and kept at home? Not public and school library books? What are we supposed to take from this? That in order to benefit from literacy one has to OWN books? That seems a little “Hooray for Capitalism” to me. Lack of clarity is one of the great weaknesses of the infographic craze. Designed to persuade, many infographics manipulate data to suit a political position. In fact statistics have always been used like this. I’m reminded of a radio host’s darkly voiced condemnation of California’s racism: “California has more hate groups than any other state”.

Uh, also more people. Twice or more as many as any other state, bar Texas.

Anyway, I digress. Apart from the unclear and possibly misleading statistics in this infographic, I’m also struck by a couple of things these numbers tell us that perhaps the creator did not intend. Can you spot them? Let’s parse things out a little bit first.

1 book per 300 students = 0.0033 of a book per child in lower income neighborhoods (1/3 of 1/100th of a book – about one page of Harry Potter I each)

Children in Upper-Middle income neighborhoods have 13 books each.

This means children in Upper-middle income neighborhood have a whopping 3900 times as many books as lower income kids. WOW. And their reading success is a whole 2.6 times better. Impressive. So, according to this inforgraphic, it’s safe to say that the actual number of books you own is not a particularly good proportional measure of reading success.

Correlation is not causation, people.

Kids with more books do better in school because their families are the type of families who buy a lot of books – affluent, well fed, educated, less involved with crime, less chaotic living environment, more value placed on academic success, better prenatal  and perinatal care, less violence in the home and better healthcare. Some studies even suggest that it is ownership of books, not readership that predicts academic success. That is, you don’t even have to read the books. Just stack them on the shelves and watch the A+’s roll in.

Many conscientious low income moms diligently bring their kids to the library every day to read to them, go to story time and borrow books on the mistaken belief that this will ensure their child a head start in school. But this effort is wasted unless that child also has decent nutrition, a safe and peaceful home and good parental role models.  Some moms would be better served spending that time getting an education themselves, getting a decent job with health insurance.

I’m all for providing books to lower income kids, and big supporter of public and school libraries. At my daughter’s public school, which serves both lower income and middle income neighborhoods, they have a program called “Books and Breakfast” where kids and teachers read and enjoy free nutritious food. Books are great. Breakfast is even better. Books AND breakfast is the best.

But why stop there? More specifically why stop at the child? So many of these Headstart, No Child Left Behind and Lunch Program schemes seem to value pouring resources into children, with very little left in the way of pouring resources into the family. This is yet another example of how children are glorified in our society while their struggling parents, often not much more than children themselves, are demonized.

What programs like First Book do is remove the agency from parents and place it in the hands of organizations and schools – like they know better how to raise kids. What would happen if a program, for example, gave book vouchers to low income parents, maybe to use in library sales? Wouldn’t that both encourage and motivate parents to not only get some books into their house, but to become involved in books themselves?

Too many programs seem to write off the parents as “too late to save” and focus all their energy on the child. Myself I favor a holistic approach to improving literacy and academic success, starting in the bedroom (or the back seat of the car, as it were). Planned Parenthood, people. Planned children are more successful children. Support should continue through pregnancy and early MOTHERHOOD. – prenatal AND perinatal (early childhood) malnutrition shaves off IQ points. In other words, some of the money allocated to Story Time should be redirected to Burger Time. Better still find ways to help low income families buy healthy food. Cheap food is processed and high in sugar and harmful fats. Healthy meats, fresh vegetables and fruits are expensive. School lunches are all very well but a hungry mom is a frustrated mom. Why can’t poor mom get a free healthy lunch too? Help the mom. Let the mom help the child.

The second thing this inforgraphic suggests is something that, to me anyway, is more troubling.  Can you spot this one?

Consider the figures on the Upper-Middle Income side. 55% of Upper-Middle Income children read below grade level? My question is: if this is the case where are they getting the grade level from? In what mythical population of kids do the majority read at grade level? Surely if 55% of children read below grade level the grade level should be lowered? Isn’t that simple logic? Shouldn’t “grade level” be something at least close to the average achievement in an age cohort? This is, after all, how IQ works. According to this infographic, averaged over both populations , roughly 69% of kids read below grade level? Somehow schools are failing to meet this arbitrary standard (don’t forget in a few dying hunter gatherer cultures no one reads at all), but it’s the kids who have to bring home the Fs.

Think about that.

Rant over.

6 thoughts on “Lies, Damned Lies and Infographics

  1. Interesting! I knew the info-graphic seemed off, right when I saw it. Thanks for the questions you raised. I really agree that it’s time we stop throwing money just the children and look at families as a whole. If basic needs aren’t meant how can children hope to get the attention for their education. I think poverty is our biggest problem. Next is the lack of support for families.

  2. Poverty is a big problem certainly. I think we need to start with emancipation of women. I know American women have the vote and the right to choose, but in practice both those rights are not exercised nearly enough. In a perfect world every baby would be planned, anticipated and longed for by two parents who were ready and able. Start there. Free women and girls from the burden of unwanted pregnancy – through education and contraception.

  3. Hear hear! The generalizations really make no sense, especially since there do exist low income neighborhoods with libraries, and those libraries certainly have more than 1/3 of a Harry Potter book. I walked by a Planned Parenthood yesterday and saw people with signs around their necks that said “Pray for the end of abortion,” and it made me so angry, because I’m pretty sure those people were not spending any of their time praying for schools with more funding, affordable healthcare, comprehensive sex education, an end to the patriarchy, or a better economy where people can have jobs that allow them to afford children. First Book seems like a lovely organization that tries to do good, but that infographic really doesn’t make me think that they know what they’re doing.

    1. Thanks for your comment. The abortion protesters are some of the most hypocritical people in the world if you ask me. I wish young women who wanted to keep their babies but couldn’t would ask them to be taken home and housed, fed, had their healthcare paid for, support raising the child, help with college or finishing high school etc etc etc. Let them put their money where their mouth is.

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