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Letter: Somerville's Statistics Guru Takes Aim at 'Least Attractive School District' Designation

Somerville's SomerStats director fires back at an online analysis that determined Somerville was one the country's "least attractive school districts."

Daniel Hadley, director of , the city's statistics department, took umbradge at an online study, posted by the real estate website Trulia, that determined Somerville was one of the .

In fact, Hadley writes in a letter to the editor, Somerville school enrollment numbers are rising. Furthermore, he called the study "an example of sloppy data analysis."

Here's his letter:

Our District is Desirable

Editor,

When Trulia, the real estate website, recently published its list of “least attractive school districts,” many of us in Somerville were left questioning how we had earned such a dubious distinction. I appreciate the caveat Chris gave in his recent post covering the list: “’least attractive’ doesn't necessarily mean ‘worse.’ Rather, it's just an observation of population trends from the Census.” I would go a step further, however, to say that Trulia’s list doesn’t mean anything at all. It’s just an example of sloppy data analysis.

In a nutshell, Trulia examined census data and ranked each city by its ratio of schoolchildren to toddlers. Places that had a lot more toddlers than schoolchildren were labeled unattractive school districts, and the top ten were called “America’s least attractive.”  It doesn’t take a data scientist to see why this label is misleading. For places on the list like Cambridge and Somerville, the ratio is seriously skewed by the number of young people they attract.

Somerville is an outlier, matched only by Cambridge, in terms of the number of students and young professionals that live within its borders. 25-34 year olds make up 31% of the population, the highest in the state. This means that Somerville is also an outlier in its ratio of toddlers to schoolchildren: 1.5/1  

Like Trulia’s analysts, I also found a correlation between this ratio and standardized test scores in Massachusetts (R-squared = .4). Does this mean that young professionals are leaving the city for towns with better MCAS scores … or does it mean that they are leaving for larger homes and dragging down the scores as they go? Probably a bit of both.

As any longtime resident knows, families come and go for a variety of reasons. Cheaper homes, a new job, and even something as seemingly small as lead paint, can drive parents of young children to look elsewhere.

That said, one of the interesting things I found in the data is that Somerville families appear to be staying longer than you would expect from its demographics. Given its test scores, median housing value, and student population, I calculated that our toddler to schoolchildren ratio should actually be more like 1.7. The difference is small, but it suggests that many families grow attached to Somerville and stay despite the challenges.

My finding is confirmed by the school enrollment numbers, which are projected to rise significantly over the coming years. We think that the trend of “family flight,” if you want to call it that, is reversing in Somerville. We recently made a large investment in our schools, and we continue to work with groups like Progress Together to ensure their success. Ultimately, I still think the question to ask is not “why are so many families leaving,” but, “why are so many young people coming?” It’s not just our proximity to Harvard, MIT and Tufts. Somerville is really cool.

Daniel Hadley, Director of SomerStat

Matt C September 11, 2012 at 12:23 PM
well said!
kevin thomas crowley September 11, 2012 at 12:56 PM
i have seen wave after wave of new residents move in and out of Somerville. they thought somerville was "cool" also. they really liked living here and honestly believed they might never leave. yet, if they were married and had children about to go to grammer school, they often left to live in another city and used as a reason that they thought the school system in the other city was better than the school system in our fair city. i have no idea if they were right or wrong in their analysis. nonetheless, the fact that they still do leave and use that same reason(excuse?) tells me that this issue ought to be adressed seriously and publically. i agree that the survey in question is near meaningless, but that does not mean that the ultimate question, ( do residents of somerville with young children leave the city because they believe the school system is inadequate?) should be dismissed. my own observation is that students who attend somerville high scool can and do receive an excellent education, if they want to do so. as to grammer schools, i know nothing either way.
Elizabeth Caffrey September 12, 2012 at 01:17 AM
I agree that these Trulia metrics may be meaningless but in every analysis and list, Somerville ends up in the bottom. While they may be using the wrong numbers, everyone I have seen has been bad for Somerville and there is always a refute from City Hall about the methodology. Let's improve the schools and not the metrics used to rank them. If you make Somerville schools amazing, it all falls into place.
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