When Designing Policy, Culture and Big Data Can Work Hand-in-Hand

During the recent Philadelphia College Prep Roundtable conference, Dr. Charles Williams, a youth psychologist from Drexel University, discussed the importance of culture when addressing the value of education. He spoke of the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that impede students’ growth and academic success, and cited the challenges faced by school districts that do not acknowledge the culture of their diverse student populations.

Dr. Charles Williams

Dr. Charles Williams

Many of the college prep specialists in the audience nodded in agreement, and offered anecdotes that illustrate why it is important for teachers, administrators, and mentors to understand their students’ cultural backgrounds, the communities in which they live, and to tout the educational opportunities that exist for them after high school graduation.

Clearly, this was an enlightening – and critical – conversation about the value of culture and context in social policy interventions. But this focus on culture and context, while so necessary, must often compete for “air time” with another important – and currently more dominant – conversation, one revolving around the trend toward “big data” and technology as tools for policy change.

Blog-Sarah-CUNY_logoThese conversations need not be mutually exclusive. Yet, as data and technology offer promising solutions, there is a risk of de-emphasizing, or perhaps ignoring, the role of culture and context. Molly Turner, in a recent Next City post, sums it up nicely:The interplay of data and technology certainly offers incredible opportunities to advance social change, and can help us develop solutions in ways previously unthinkable. For instance, the New York Department of Education and CUNY have forged data linkages to create regular Where Are They Now reports, enabling New York City high schools to more accurately track the postsecondary outcomes of students. CUNY also has used these data to develop regression-adjusted performance metrics, which control for different student characteristics and allow CUNY to assess how well its colleges support the postsecondary success of their students.


“Tech innovators… like to work on a tabula raza, void of constraints, preconceived obstacles or even the benefit of institutional knowledge. And while sometimes that leads to genius strokes of ingenuity, other times it means unknowingly repeating mistakes of our urbanist past, such as becoming overly reliant on the wisdom of the crowd or failing to account for important social or cultural divides.”

The allure of access to quantitative data and technology should not allow the field to lose sight of the on-the-ground realities and opportunities that drive successful interventions. When 88% of black boys are not reading independently by the third grade level, as Dr. Williams cited, this indicates that we need to understand these challenges, not solely through the lens of quantitative data and the possibilities of technology, but also through the experiences and culture of those children, as well as the context of the systems at play.

Simply put, when designing and evaluating social interventions, the tent must be big enough to include both of these approaches.

Author: Sarah Singer Quast

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