Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Creating the right program vs. the hype of big data

I regularly laud Arlington County's government here, and get some sniping in the comments.  But I have to admit that I laughed out loud when I saw an article in the Sunday Washington Post, "Arlington schools tap 'big data' to reduce dropout rate," stating that ArCo is offering a $10,000 prize for using "big data" to figure out the school truancy program.

Big data--mining massive data sets with specialized programming tools and algorithms--is like "Apps for Democracy", not the real issue (see "All the talk of e-government, digital government, and open source government is really about employing the design method").

The issue is process design, creating the right programs, devoting the necessary resources, and staying committed for the many years it will take to right the problem.

I don't know if there is tons of waste in government, but there is a great deal of focusing resources on the "wrong" problem and mis- and dis-coordination of programs and resources.

My approach to planning is to start from the endpoint, "what are your preferred outcomes?," figure out if you are achieving preferred outcomes as a matter of course--routinely, and if not, looking backwards at the processes that produce the outcomes.

Based on a wide variety of analyzes (best practice review, program evaluation, etc.), figure out why preferred outcomes aren't being generated routinely, and change the processes accordingly, taking into account potential "unintended consequences" in advance, rather than not considering them at all.

Another way to look at it is what the Harvard Business Review called a "pre-mortem" analysis, to evaluate projects before they start rather than after they fail (see "Artificial Intelligence" which in part reprints "Helping Government Learn").  Also see "'Little data' matters too" from the Strategy & Business blog.

A cursory analysis of school truancy would identify the key problems pretty quickly.

-- Tool Kit for Creating Your Own Truancy Reduction Program, National Criminal Justice Reference Service
-- Best Practices Review: Truancy Reduction Efforts  (this is from the Wisconsin State Government and the nature of the report illustrates that it can be difficult for government to focus on what matters)

It helps to start with a thorough review of "current conditions," which when I started reading plans, all plans seemed to start out with this, but increasingly plans seem to skip over this, or at least, aren't very thorough about it.

After all, as stated in "Truancy Prevention in Action: Best Practices and Model Truancy Programs Executive Summary" from the National Center for School Engagement:
Utilizing best practices is a sound investment strategy:
• By studying those programs that have been proven to reduce or prevent truancy, practitioners and policy-makers avoid recreating the wheel and have more time to spend on implementation and evaluation issues.
• By taking advantage of the research and development efforts of others, staff has more time to spend on adapting a strategy to meet the demands of the local community.
• By financially supporting practices that have demonstrated success, public and private funders engage in prudent expenditure of limited monies.
Truancy is the dependent variable.  It's caused by "something else," primarily disintegrating or chaotic familial situations.

For example, the Boston Globe's analysis of the Tsarnaev Family finds that its likely they weren't part of a terrorism scheme directed from abroad, but were troubled--the older brother may have been indicating signs of schizophrenia--and angry, see "The Fall of the House of Tsarnaev".

Similarly, reports on DC schools (e.g., "Study shows significant midyear turnover among D.C. students," Post) determined that the schools serving the poorest areas of the city have the biggest churn in enrollment on a week-to-week basis, which is another indicator of familial chaos.

Failure to thrive scholastically is for the most part a dependent variable, a function of other factors.

You figure out the grouping of problems, what the best way is to deal with each group, categorize the students ("truants") accordingly, and move forward with the right programs and the right approaches.

E.g., earlier this year I blogged, "Criminalizing truancy versus focused programs to address truant behavior,"  about how DC's efforts to criminalize parents for student truancy was misguided, that in all likelihood the students and families need help and assistance, that punishment just makes a bad situation even worse.

That entry didn't really discuss problematic household situations, it focused more on "not liking school."

From the entry:

People don't go to school because "they don't like school."

Likely, they don't like school because they're not good at it.

Likely they're not good at reading (and writing) and math, so of course they don't like school.

Criminalizing their dislike doesn't make it go away.  Addressing their ability to read, write, and do arithmetic, combined with other initiatives will combat truancy far more successfully. 

That entry discusses a program for high school students.

Similar kinds of best practice family support programs exist as well.  Actually, DC Public Schools has some of these types of program, as does Montgomery County and probably many other places, and they are making a difference for some families.  But the resources required to move one family up the ladder to stability are significant and far greater than people expect.

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At 11:47 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

well, yes, the pushback is usually the arlington co goverment has a tendency to believe their own PR.

that being said, they do a lot of things right.


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