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ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL


March/April 2014

Wise board members check facts
By Stuart Yager and Jeff Pedersen

Stuart Yager is an associate professor of educational leadership at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Jeff Pedersen is acting executive director at Laureate Education and serves as board president of Connecting Learning Assures Successful Students, Inc.

Recently a graduate student in a superintendent licensure program shared an article in class about fact checking statements in the media. The article came from a well-known newspaper and presented statements about Common Core State Standards. Talking points included, “Common Core expects English teachers to spend at least half of their reading instructional time at every grade level on informational texts;” “The goal of Common Core is ‘to instill federally determined attitudes’ and mindsets in students including political and religious beliefs;” and “Teachers were not involved in the process to develop the standards.” Needless to say, this led to a discussion on reliability and validity of information and the importance for school leaders, including school board members, to check facts during their decision making process.

Technology impacts how we receive, process, and communicate information with far less opportunity to question the validity of what arrives. Wise board members are skilled at sorting fact from opinion. Hot topics come riddled with opinion and often facts are not readily apparent. Pension reform, teacher evaluation, funding formulas, and Common Core State Standards are just a few of the topics about which board members must have clear and accurate knowledge to make a decision.

Wise board members check facts and are respectful, thoughtful stewards for the good of the district and community. Such board members set expectations of valid and reliable evidence when presented with position statements from citizens or community groups and they are expert at sorting out opinions from facts.

With increasing pressure to meet and exceed educational expectations, stakeholders and leaders emphasize the need for improvements in data-driven decision making. Ingrid Guerra- Lo ´pez, an associate professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and director of the Institute for Learning and Performance, suggests that successful leaders make decisions based on relevant, reliable, valid and complete data, gathered through a sound investigative process that is aligned with desired, long-term outcomes and consequences and avoids premature solutions. It is critical that leaders are skilled in intelligence gathering and fact-checking to assure the decisions that are made on behalf of the constituents they represent are well-grounded and supported through fact. As fact checkers, board members must be detail-oriented and committed to making sure every fact in the statement or story is accurate.

Working with written or spoken information, determine truth based on fact. A fact is a statement that can be verified. A statement of opinion is not a fact. If you don’t know whether information is true or false, investigate. Sources should be reliable, knowledgeable, and unbiased in order to be trustworthy. The following four questions were adapted from two articles: “How to Fact Check” by Celia Webb and “Six Steps for Fact Checking Citizen Media” by George Weyman. Ask yourself these questions when presented with information:

Who is presenting the information?
Often school board members are presented with information in several different contexts, including formal settings juxtaposed with waiting in line at the super market. First, determine the qualifications of the presenter and/or author of the information. What background, and/or experience do they have? If this information is verbal, ask yourself if this person has been a frequent sharer of issues or concerns? Is there an historical past with this person? Does this person have a consistent account of the issue? Is this person directly involved or did they get someone’s first-hand knowledge of the issue? If not, the account may spread disinformation.

Is the source reliable?
Each fact used needs to come from a reliable source. Be sure to do your homework and check sources. The more well-known the business, institution or research agency generating the original information, the more likely it is reliable. Assessing source reliability is most difficult when the source is listed as a “well-placed source” or “an anonymous source,” or some equally unspecific citing. In those cases, treat such information as possibly suspect. Also, listen critically to those presenting information. Pay attention for accuracy and consistency including descriptions of locations such as school names, a street address, and the use of cited sources.

Is the source knowledgeable?
Look for sources that have credentials in the area of expertise from which the information emanates. Look for years of related experience and published research. Be cognizant that presenters and authors who are experts in their field may be given credit as more likely to be knowledgeable and accurate. However, these experts may harbor a bias. The use of inflammatory language is an overt clue to bias. Check for declarative statements in written documents, for example, "always," "exactly," etc. The reason for the use of this type of language should be explained in the text and/or by the presenter. If it isn’t, find out why. Look for evidence of due diligence by the presenter and/or author. Are resources listed for claims made?

Is the source unbiased?
Independent laboratories and agencies are the most likely source for unbiased information. Be cognizant of research reports and the funding that is used to support this research. Research funded by organizations with a significant monetary stake in the outcome of the research should be viewed with skepticism. In general, be observant of affiliations connected to the information presented. Most information comes with a particular viewpoint that affects how and why people report concerns and issues. Investigate whether the source is working for a political party, a government agency, a particular company, an activist network or a media group If so, does the association undermine the credibility of the concern, issue, or information being reported?

In this fast-moving world of information, support for just about any statement or document can easily be created. The savvy fact checker is skillful at determining the difference between fact and opinion. It is recommended that individual board members discuss fact-checking strategies with board colleagues during a work session. Improving the collective ability of the entire board to check facts will make the board more effective and demonstrate exemplary boardsmanship.

References
Guerra- Lo ´pez, I. (2007). Evaluating impact: Evaluation and continual improvement for performance improvement practitioners. RHD Press, 2007

Webb, Celia, “How to FactCheck,” www.pilinutpress.com/Articles/Editing/ HowtoFactCheck.html , 2013.

George Weyman, “Six Steps for Fact Checking Citizen Media, http://meedan.org/2012/05/social-media-verification-lessons/2012.

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