Friday, January 7, 2011

Data sets, kids, and liberty to learn

The desire to "solve" the problems of education often elicits what could be called the "dream of the perfect data set."  The dream goes something like this: if we could somehow gather and organize all of the data we currently have we would see the solution to our educational problems.

You don't always hear the dream expressed as baldly as it is in this video, though.  In it, Jeff Edmondson, the President of Strive (an organization whose motto is "Every Child, Every Step of the Way, Cradle to Career") suggests that if we could somehow aggregate all of the data we have on kids we could set up systems that help them to full educational attainment, health, and success.

Edmondson's vision is noteworthy for two reasons:

1. it assumes that data speak clearly, and that aggregating data makes it more likely, not less, that we will understand the solutions to problems.

2. it assumes that it is OK for a person or people to look at all of the data and make decisions for the child--assigning the child a doctor, or a mentor at the moment the child needs it.

Both of these assumptions are troubling, the first because it imagines that at the individual and aggregate level, data are unambiguous, or that you can reason straight from data to a solution; the second because it proposes some sort of enormously powerful and wise organization who can implement the suggestions of data in the lives of kids.

Any parent would blanch at these suggestions, because they are false, because they propose that children in need should be open to systematic surveillance, and because they imagine that children and their families fail to make decisions about their lives based on good reasoning.

Edmondson argues near the end of his talk that it is possible to support "every child every step of the way."  Even if that were true, would it be wise?  Would children be better of because of it?  Would they be smarter?  Wiser? Healthier?  I doubt it.  I want children and their parents to make good choices as often as possible, and systems of schooling should encourage that.  But once they insist they know the right decisions, then they step beyond an educative role to something much scarier, and perhaps much less effective as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your critique. The idea that any one organization knows best how to raise any child is incredible to me. How naive and egotistical. It would be a very ugly world without all the personal choices being made and the chance changes that come about when people try to find their way in the world.