Note: In preparation for the results announcement by DonorsChoose, this series is meant to carve up different issues raised by my work on the DonorsChoose Data and address them directly and more fully. You can find the original announcement and report at Predicting Success on DonorsChoose.org.
In the report, I argue that donors choose what they perceive to be the most deserving projects. I explicated this a little in my first supplement, but want to refocus on it here to talk about what deservingness may be and how we might be able to reflect on exactly what deservingness should be. First though, I dispel the idea of interpreting the data as a straight-forward measure of deservingness.
I found a number of categories that negatively affect the probability of success. For example, suburban and rural schools, and projects for non-high school students are less likely to reach project completion. This does not necessarily mean that donors perceive urban high schools as more deserving. It may be due to the fact that donors are more likely to be parents of urban high school children donating to their child’s school. From the data provided by DonorsChoose, this hypothesis is untestable. Thus, my talking about the findings in terms of deservingness is based on an informed, but not fully justified assumption that the findings do in fact, to some extent, come from donor’s notions of deservingness. Essentially, in light of the fact that there are alternative explanations of the findings, I still believe that some donors see urban high schools as more deserving.
The findings of the report allow us to ask ourselves who is more deserving. Obviously, the effect of gender, urban/suburban/rural, and subject area are fertile grounds for discussion. Gender presents a unique challenge, first and foremost, because there is a real question of whether or not donor’s consciously see male teachers as more deserving. While there is plenty of literature on the glass escalator effect for men in typically female dominated workplaces, whether or not this applies to DonorsChoose is not testable with the data. It could be that male teachers write different types of essays that donors find more persuasive or ask for different types of resources within given categories. In essence, the gender variable could be capturing the effect of something else that I didn’t take into account. This becomes less likely the more, other variables I control for (and I controlled for a lot of them). Given the previous research on this issue and the number of controls I introduced, I am inclined to believe that the gender effect is actually attributable to a gender bias. The question then is, is that okay? Are we comfortable with the idea that male teachers are more deserving than their female counterparts? I would say not. How could we fix that? I’ll elaborate that in the next supplement on strategies for correcting valuations in the DonorsChoose market.
The salience of the urban/suburban/rural distinction on project success raises two issues. The first harkens back to my earlier discussion of alternative interpretations to deservingness. I’m inclined to believe that there are more urban donors (by simple dint of population). The challenge then is to reach more rural and suburban donors. I’m also inclined to believe that non-local donors, those who are not fully tied to donating to their local schools, are biased towards urban schools because of the recent education reform movement’s emphasis on urban school reform. Urban schools are the locus of heated debate about educational innovation (i.e. the charter school movement) and public school reform (i.e. the accountability movement). On DonorsChoose, I believe this translates into the perception among some donors that urban schools are especially wracked with problems and that their students are especially disadvantaged. (I also believe this translates into the preference for charter schools that I found). Educational research is not my area, so I’m not well-versed in the research on whether or not urban schools are more or less disadvantaged than suburban or rural schools (when you control for local property values, parents education, and the like). Thus, I can’t make an informed opinion as to whether this perception of urban deservingness is justified. But, if you buy my argument, now that we have evidence that urban schools are preferred among some donors, we can find out if that perception is warranted, and if necessary, try to change it.
Finally, the differential preferences for donations to different subject areas ranked very roughly from most preferred to least: arts, sports, STEM, social science, special education, applied, and language and writing. There are ways to obtain a more accurate ranking (though this one is likely to be pretty close), but I only want to use this as an example. If we assume deservingness, we could read these rankings as reflecting a sentiment in which donors believe some subjects are already disproportionately under-funded (i.e. arts and after-school athletics programs), but still adhere to our present emphasis on the value of math and science education (the STEM fields). But, now that we know how these subjects stand, we can ask, should more be done to promote special education or, applied or language projects? This would be a good selling point for getting a foundation to fund a campaign for literature projects. In addition, we can ask ourselves whether or not we should be distinguishing by subject area. Is a piano for a music program more deserving than microscopes for a biology class? I believe that when a donor searches through DonorsChoose, they are more likely to say to themselves, “I want to fund the arts because the government won’t,” than say, “The piano is more important than the microscope.” In essence, I believe the bias for different subject areas is applied at the beginning, rather than at the final choice between different concrete options. However, the outcome is the same, the piano is more likely to be funded than the microscope and we have to decide if that’s a worthwhile value judgement.
I’ve gone through just some of the findings to introduce their implications for DonorsChoose and for us as a philanthropic society judging schools and programs based on an idea of deservingness. In my next post, I’ll discuss some ways we can use the prediction algorithm to fix any biases in the market that we find unjustifiable.