The lust for data leads to more and greater hunger.
We have become a “data-driven” culture and economy, in which it is assumed that enough of the right data will lead to desired outcomes. Nowhere is this truer than in the culture of public education led from the nose by the Bill & Melinda Gates, Walton, Kellogg, and Joyce Foundations.
Here is an example of the data rabbit hole that promises satiation but simply leads to more and more hunger. A few major foundations provide the lion’s share of the charter school dollars, and as it turns out, they mostly provide them to a few states. Massachusetts, New York, and Louisiana are by far the biggest recipients of such foundation grants, followed by California and a stack of states from Minnesota to Georgia. In fact, eighty percent of foundation dollars goes to charter schools in ten states. Why would there be such an uneven distribution of money in an arena of need that is evenly spread out?
It is because the three leading recipients are also the states in which charter schools are better at raising test scores. They correspond to the states that did best in the Obama-era competition for federal funds, called “Race to the Top.” So, the states doing the best to begin with are the states that continue getting the most dollars because the data indicates they are the most cost-effective place to invest. It is circular logic, and one that is based largely upon the data of test results, which themselves are greatly influenced by class, race, and a state’s political culture. Test scores do a great job of providing data but they have not been shown to appropriately decipher the quality of learning environments.
Like bigger banks gobbling up smaller banks, charter school conglomerates have been slurping up smaller, independent charter schools to form massive, multi-state charter management organizations (CMOs). Naturally, the larger the CMO the more data it can collect. More data is rewarded with more funding. What we know for certain as a result, is that this scenario produces more successful organizations in those states that are already having the most success in making better test-takers.
“Knowledge seekers are looking for insights, judgments, and understanding,” write authors Larry Prusak and Tom Davenport in “Working Knowledge.” They point out that data provides us with abundant details and catalogues of information but it requires wisdom and facility to turn that data into knowledge. Our greatest quest, they argue, ought to be for knowledge rather than data.
Economist have famously built their models on data that does not include the most sloppy and unmanageable of information: human nature, and our propensity to make choices that are not always rational or even in our best interest. True knowledge, on the other hand, embraces the fullness of the activity and elements in a given arena, whether or not it is all measurable or predictable.
If we only focus on what we can measure and build our civic and cultural institutions on data-driven economic models we will have created soulless, unimaginative, and in the end, inhumane systems and organizations. Some of the best human attributes cannot be measured and will not be successfully standardized.