ON MESSAGE: Statistics Don’t Lie, Reportedly

“Nobody really trusts the numbers that come out of Tweed these days.”

–Bill Thompson, reacting to new figures announced by City Hall that show the high school graduation rate climbing to a 22-year high of 56.4 percent

As anyone who follows city government–or anyone, even, who has watched an eiposed of The Wire–knows, it’s not unheard of for city departments and agencies to “juke the stats” in order to make the mayor look good.

Anyone who has watched an episode of The Wire also knows that pointing this out is futile. When it comes to shaping public opinion, nothing speaks louder than the numbers.

This leaves Mr. Thompson, who is waging a long-shot campaign against Michael Bloomberg, in an impossible spot. The mayor, from the very beginning of his reign, has sought–through official acts and millions of dollars’ worth of campaign advertising–to make education reform his signature issue. So when encouraging statistics from the Department of Education are picked up and amplified by the media–New York Post headline: DIPLOMA-TIC BREAKTHROUGH–it ratifies a preexisting premise in voters’ minds.

(Making Mr. Thompson’s attempts to cast doubt on the numbers tougher, in this case, is the fact that the data originated in Albany, and was ratified by the state education department as well as the city’s.)

Mr. Thompson may continue to point out that 74 percent of these graduates who go on to the city’s community colleges require remediation. Or that the rates are somewhat flattering because about one in siex of the graduates included in the statistics received the less-rigorous local diploma, which will soon be discontinued. It doesn’t matter: All the public will hear, if it hears anything at all, is a politician trying to spin his way out of some inconveniently good news.

Walter Mondale ran again Ronald Reagan in 1984 just as the unemployment, inflation and interest rates were plummeting.

Mr. Mondale urged Americans to look beyond those numbers–to the astounding deficits Reagan was running up, the rising gap between rich and poor and the precarious condition of hundreds of savings-and-loan institutions. But all of those problems would have to wait until another day, because the only numbers that mattered all said the same thing: It was morning in America.


ON MESSAGE: Statistics Don’t Lie, Reportedly