Data: It’s all about people, not the data

I’m a data geek. I’ll own that. I love what data can do, what it can inform, what it can tell me.  I constantly find myself mentally connecting conversations I’m in and meetings I’m part of to the data that could best inform the discussion or the decisions. It’s a bit of a problem.

As our society and our government becomes slowly absorbed by the data deluge we’re now enabling, there is a righteous backlash from many that data isn’t what it’s all about, data are not more important than say, people. And this is a fair suggestion. Sometimes this is a valid and constructive statement – the point of analysis is not the data, the results or the visualization of those results, it’s what those data can do to inform decisions that will have a human impact that matters.  Where I get frustrated is with people loving to push back on the idea of using data pro-actively is when people argue that “this problem isn’t about data, it’s not something we need data for, we already know what’s happening”. I hate those statements.  They relay a level of arrogance that is not intentional but real.  Anytime someone already fully knows the nuance and scale of a problem, they better also have insights as to the solutions, otherwise what good has their knowledge and insight been to the people they care about helping?

This is another case of two sides acting as if only one side is important. And that is not something productive or effective for most social issues. It’s next to impossible to get executive buy in to change something with just experience and intuition, we don’t often see policy or investment decisions based on insight alone.  Likewise, we should not ever be making serious decisions or assumptions just based on data alone. That leads to decisions made lacking critical context and nuance and to simplistic technocratic solutions. Better to be pairing the data with the insights and experience of those living out those data.

Just as policies are often more successful when developed with the decision makers and implementers involved, so too should data driven decisions be constructed.  A great local example of this in action appeared in the release of our latest report focused on attendance problems in Oakland Unified Schools. Despite serious problems of chronic absenteeism across the district, Garfield Elementary is one of six schools in Oakland that have cut chronic absences by half or more. The Principal, Nima Tahai said “First, it’s data driven. You have to have the numbers in front of you, student names and down to the reasons for each absence… Then, school staff must engage in one-on-one work with families, reaching out to them to find out what is going on and talking to them about the importance of getting their kids to school. He went on to say that Garfield administrators even pick up kids to drive them to school if a family is stuck without transportation or a parent is ill.

This problem would never have been raised to the community’s attention without thoughtful analysis of very detailed data on every student in the district. Data revealed the scale of the problem, and then, in the hands of a facile administrator, were used to identify individual points of influence or action- each student in need of help.  The data alone mean just a nice report or a compliance document. When delivered in a form that can support action, these data become powerful elements of change. Data, people, action. That’s how government should be driving change, data driven, not data obsessed.

*First posted on Govloop.com

Farewell to the Achievement Gap?

Dr Royal talked about the history of this phrase and the clear and present meaning conveyed when it is used most commonly to describe the performance difference between white kids and kids of color in our public schools (and mostly just for black and brown students).  This paragraph states the reality quite well:

Because of America’s racial history and legacy, the cross-racial comparison that holds up white student achievement as the universally standard goal is problematic. Further, the term “achievement gap” is inaccurate because it blames the historically marginalized, under-served victims of poor schooling and holds whiteness and wealth as models of excellence. And, as with all misnomers, the thinking that undergirds the achievement gap only speaks of academic outcomes, not the conditions that led to those outcomes, nor does it acknowledge that the outcomes are a consequence of those conditions.

At the Council we worked heavily in partnership with OUSD in setting up the African American Male Achievement initiative in Oakland last year, and there was a huge focus on the achievement gap that we pushed back on with all the goal indicators- the assumption that our black and brown boys must be achieving to the same level as white boys just did not make any sense- if the bar is set low then reaching the goal is a BS waste of time. There were some instances where white males had great outcomes, and in those cases the District chose to keep them as the benchmark…

When we look at California school districts like Oakland, the outcomes for white males are not GOOD, so why would we seek this for our most disenfranchised students?  We instead pushed for a quality standard that required all students to improve outcomes.  It lead us to develop a new Equity Framework at the Council- we’re talking now about how equity requires a measure of quality before there is measurable, meaningful equality.

Equity

We also use language that communicates the disparities between ethnic groups- we want people to understand there are differences that are not healthy, but it is not as you say correctly just about those student’s performance- they don’t exist in a bubble, they exist in neighborhoods with unequal conditions and have historical issues to face.  In the end, putting it all on those kids as being under-achievers does in fact diminish the wider scope of responsibility that we conveniently ignore as a system and a society.

Check out our equity framework concept here http://urbanstrategies.org/equity/

To get an idea of how place and other factors impact out kids take a look at the map of suspension rates for African American males in Oakland.

suspensions