Data, democracy, & the 2016 Election

Lefties are mad as hell and ready for battle, but we need to pick our targets. Data should not be one of them.

Last week, Harry Boyte wrote that the disappointing election results should prompt a sea change in American education. Boyte wants the locus of school policy to move away from “the cult of the expert” and towards democracy. In contemporary U.S. public schools, trained professionals make all major decisions. Boyte wants to shift that power to the community whose children attends local schools.

Boyte almost certainly considers yours truly to be a, uh, cultist. He writes that “Big Data” is the tool by which experts beat the larger body politic into submission. We wear fancy suits, talk in jargon, and push incomprehensible tables and bar graphs at anyone who dares question our proposed educational policy. Thus we are opposed to a world in which people actively run the institutions that affect their lives.

I agree with Boyte that communities desperately need more control of their schools. All parts of American society have become too bureaucratic, including public education. Parents concerned about their child’s math curriculum must go several levels up the hierarchy to get to someone who even knows why the district selected that curriculum. Due to state and federal regulations, districts must select curriculum from a fairly narrow range of options, meaning our parents can only get satisfaction if they organize a lobbying campaign. I support most reasonable efforts to shift decision-making power to the people and away from Boyte’s “cult of the expert.”

However, expertise still has its uses in such a system, and data is not fundamentally in opposition to democracy. All research, including “Big Data,” is a search for facts, and decisions made without reference to reality are doomed to fail. Experts can help democratic bodies understand issues and weigh the merits of potential solutions. In Boyte’s system, our exemplar parents would still be concerned with, say, which math curriculum leads to the greatest improvement in the average child’s math ability. “Big Data” is the best way to address such democratically generated questions.

Expertise should not supersede democracy, but it can and should act in its service and help democratic bodies make better decisions. The average person needs more control over American institution. Once they get it, experts can help them use it for everyone’s benefit.

Bryan Shellypolicy, data