Camden and Big Data in the Big Apple

• According to news reports, New Jersey governor Chris Christie is on the verge of announcing that the state will take over the deeply troubled Camden school district. During my tenure with the NJDOE, though the state controlled aspects of three other districts, Camden was always at or near the front of our minds. The condition of the city, especially the state of its schools, is as tragic as I’ve seen. Decades of nationwide experience demonstrate that state takeovers of districts are beset by a long list of challenges—educational, financial, political, and organizational. But if there’s any Governor bold enough to push through the obstacles, it’s Chris Christie. And if there’s any state chief with the brain, heart, and backbone to make it work, it’s my old boss, Chris Cerf. There are tough days, weeks, and months ahead, I’m sure, but I’m confident that this is in the best interest of Camden’s long underserved boys and girls..

• If you like data—especially if you’re in the “data-driven-decision-making-can-solve-everything!” camp—this story from the NYT Metropolitan section is definitely worth a read. Actually, if you’re worried about the pronounced use of data in education—especially if you’re in the “we’re-turning-our-kids-into-widgets!” camp—you probably want to read it, too. The first few paragraphs about identifying oil-dumping scofflaws pretty much summarize the piece: If we collect enough data and analyze it the right way, heavens, the problems we can solve. Lots of people nowadays talk about using interim assessment data to improve instruction, change class schedules, and so on. This article, though, makes me wonder if that’s just the tiniest sliver of what’s possible.

Could we identify the ideal address for that new charter’s building? Could we accurately predict state legislators’ voting behavior on tenure reform proposals? Could we identify the 100 conditions likeliest to prepare third graders for success on AP exams 10 years later?

Implicit in all of these questions is the “should” element. Just because we might be able to do something doesn’t mean we ought to. This brand of worry, however, barely registers in the article. And it might barely register among edu-technocrats. But as you know, I hand-wring about such things.

-Andy Smarick

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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