Correlation can accomplish anything, it's how the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences consistently finds a way to endorse chemicals in the organic food process while scaring people about chemicals everywhere else.(1)  It's how the price of steel can be linked to violence in the Mid-East.

A recent paper argues that reading scores are going down and phones are to blame, and they use correlation to try and show it.

Let's put that in context. The last time reading scores in America went up was when No Child Left Behind was in force - math scores went up during that time too, for boys, girls and minorities. But education unions hated it, they said it had nothing to do with that achievement, and President Obama killed it for them. Since then scores have declined. 

Can you therefore infer that the replacement he ordered created, common core, caused reading scores to go down? Or did a government education juggernaut that some say cares more about getting funding than it does teaching cause scores to decline?

Or did computers, tablets and smartphones ruin kids?

Yes to all of the above. That is great thing about correlation, it can do anything if your interest is advancing an agenda. It is why epidemiology papers can claim the same product works and fails when it came to the pandemic, it is why eating meat can be linked to cancer and higher intelligence.

Some epidemiologists - Harvard School of Public Health, NIEHS, and France's International Agency for Research on Cancer(IARC) are chief culprits - use statistics the way drunks use lampposts; for support rather than illumination.

Using the same narrow correlation that can find tablets make reading scores decline, you can conclude that eating organic food causes autism. When Tipper Gore, wife of the then-Senator and later Vice-President, decided she didn't like rap music, she got epidemiologists to show - they always used "suggests" in the paper and then declared causation in media - that after rap music became popular shooting deaths went up. And so rap music caused gun violence. The war on black culture, music, and guns reached an apex for Democrats with that one.(2)

So have reading scores really gone down and is there an easy fix? In a retrospective look at 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress and 2019 as well- we have to ignore coronavirus era results for the near future -reading scores in grades 4 and 8 declined , for both public and private schools, across income levels, school districts, and races. 

As I mentioned, the comparison year was 2009, before President Obama gutted No Child Left Behind - a Bush program he wanted to replace with someone that had his own name on it.(3) 
8th graders performed worse than they did in 2009. Should educators blame Obama? Not possible. Democrats get 93 percent of teacher union donations. Educators certainly can't blame their own lobbyists for getting their own policy changes made.

It is easy to blame modern digital tools. Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) doesn't blame cell phones specifically but uses the non-specific "students who are already struggling, for any number of reasons" which is politically smart - if you can't blame Republicans in specific you shouldn't blame anyone.

Only 37 percent of the 52,100 seniors had scores good enough to go to college but that's normal human variation. Honestly, if you need more than 63 percent of people to go to college, you just create public college with no admissions criteria - a public high school for people who are still trying to find themselves. It is not what college is designed to do. After the fall of the USSR, we all heard of waiters and cab drivers in New York City who had Ph.D.s from Russia but were valueless here - everyone got one if you just kept attending school. 

We go through this cultural hand-wringing periodically. I have written in USA Today and other outlets how the issue is not whatever education fad is in vogue this year, or how much money is being spent, it is that we don't teach to the test the way other countries do. We teach how to think. It is why kids who are criticized for not doing well on tests also become the most scientifically literate adults on earth. They learned how to think.

The scores weren't bad enough to blame anything. The irony of blaming the digital world instead of upending what had been working in 2009 is that for the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, most students took a digital version of the test. 


 (1) Well, it can't accomplish everything. Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson who prided himself on the "Professor Lockdown" nickname he acquired after using a suspect computer estimate to claim 500,000 Brits would die if the country did not go into lockdown until June of last year, resigned from his government position after he was busted engaging in trysts with a married woman - while he carried coronavirus, and at the same time he was telling other couples they had to be apart for another 6 weeks or the island was doomed. No amount of stepwise multiple regressions will let us make the causal inference that his career is not ruined. 

He'll still be able to write editorials for The Guardian, but, well, it's The Guardian.

(2) Now progressive elites have taken to saving black people from themselves by banning menthol cigarettes instead.

(3) Much like when he gutted NASA's Constellation program to declare he wanted to go to Mars instead. We're no closer to Mars than we were in 2009 but had the Constellation program.