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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Don't Do It, Gavin Newsom

Governor Newsom, please don't spend $10 million on a system that tracks students from kindergarten all the way into the work force.

January 15, 2019

Freshly inaugurated California governor Gavin Newsom is looking to put his stamp on education in the state.

While the teachers of Los Angeles Unified are striking, this is going to be tough, but once that dispute is settled, as reported by Mikhail Zinshteyn of EdSource, Newsom is calling for a $10 million investment into a data collection system that will track Californians from kindergarten all the way into the work force.

I know it’s a busy time for Governor Newsom, but I hope he can take the time to hear my plea: please do not do this. It is a bad idea. A very bad idea, with very little chance of good outcomes and very high probability of wasting whatever money goes towards its creation.

I am not an expert in building these kinds of systems, but even I know enough to understand that $10 million is a fraction of what it takes to make such a monster, and at some point when the full bill comes due, everyone, regardless of their stance on the desirability of such a system, will decide that even if it works, it’s not worth it, and everything spent up to that moment will be for naught.

More importantly, a system like this is never going to work, or even if it “works,” the way it “works” will have little bearing on helping students become productive, employed adults and happy citizens of the state of California. I know this because this stuff is too damn complicated to be reducible to the kind of data any system could collect.

I know this because I read and think about these issues quite a bit. Even with that work, I wouldn’t consider myself an absolute expert, which is why it’s so important for a governor with the power to launch such an initiative to do at least a little bit of reading and thinking on these issues before we plunge headlong into a $10 million expenditure.

This is why I’ve compiled a reading list for Governor Newsom to consider as he makes his final decision.

For background on the limits of data and algorithms, I would like Governor Newsom to read Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil, and The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z. Muller. Brisk and readable by the layperson, both books make a case for how human performance cannot be reduced to quantifiable measurements.

Next, I would like Gavin Newsom to read three books more specifically dealing with education:

  • The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better by Daniel Koretz. Harvard education professor Koretz shows how our 30-year obsession with standardization and assessment has not only led to no appreciable gains in student achievement, but how perverse incentives to improve scores have driven out subjects like art, physical education, music and recess, while resulting cheating and short-term prep that has no lasting impact on learning.
  • Better Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality by Jack Schneider. In this book Schneider, an assistant professor of education at UMass Lowell, reveals the shortcomings of the kinds of measurements we tend to use when we judge schools. How we think of a particular school is rooted in value judgments about what’s important to the individual. A tracking system will inevitably crowd out this nuance.
  • Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom From Young Children in School by Carla Shalaby. In this portrait of students who are deemed “troublemakers,” Shalaby demonstrates how subjecting students to a system which seeks standardization and quantification is damaging even to those who toe the line, and disastrous to those who exist at the margins.

Together, the above titles should demonstrate the difficulty, even the folly of collecting data on this scale that could ever be meaningful.

But I’m not done.

I would like Governor Newsom to read Inside Higher Ed blogger Barbara Fister’s review of New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future by James Bridle, and if he is intrigued, to go ahead and read Bridle’s book so as to better understand how turning the government over to the harvesting of data in the name of progress is inherently anti-freedom.

I would like Governor Newsom to read the chapters on “The Problem of Atmosphere” and “The Problem of Surveillance” in Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities by some guy whose name I can’t recall right at the moment. Governor Newsom should understand what happens when students come to believe that only their scores and rankings matter, and what impact it might have on them to know they are being tracked from kindergarten on.

I would like Governor Newsom to read a profile in The New York Times of Jake and other teenagers who experienced debilitating school-related anxiety and depression rooted in what they viewed as a relentless need to “perform,” a need exacerbated by the tracking they were subjected to.

I would like Governor Newsom to read about “The Patients vs. Paperwork Problem for Doctors,” written by Danielle Ofri, a practicing physician and professor at the New York University School of Medicine. Dr. Ofri recounts how because of the requirement to record data for the sake of electronic medical records, doctors spend twice as much time on administrative work as they do on seeing patients.

Is this something we want in education, putting additional burdens on teachers to track data on students in order to satisfy a government data-collection regime? We already have far too many policies and procedures which constrain teachers from acting as the professionals they are. Do we want to make it worse?

I imagine Governor Newsom is busy, so he may not have the time to do this reading. Perhaps his staff could do it for him, provide summaries of the relevant points. Heck, I’m free, I’d be glad to get on the phone.

But if all of that is too much, Governor Newsom need do no reading. He merely needs to listen to his predecessor, former governor Jerry Brown, and what he had to say about the proposed “enhancements” to the system:

We have something called “Cal-PASS,” a state computer, which I kept in check. And I think now it’ll be full throttle to collect as much possible data and measure people in all sorts of ways. I think it’s dangerous. I don’t think it’s very useful, except for academics who have to write theses and do research. We had one on the teachers, which we stopped.

See, the trouble is the computer can collect a lot of information and regurgitate it in many different ways, and people are fascinated by that. Controlling and measuring everything … We’re all ranked. And who’s it for? Now, if it’s for the academics, they’re relatively harmless. But then it’s going to ultimately be used, at some point, and it has kind of a smell of eugenics, that we want to purify this kind of motley race called human beings and if we can measure all the different attributes, we can then make normative the right path and the right way to be. I think that is the absence of diversity and the absence of freedom.

Don’t do it, Governor Newsom. Jerry Brown and I implore you.

What do you suggest Governor Newsom read on this issue?


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