Ferguson and the Evolution of our Social System

Our government’s efforts to extend opportunity to all of our citizens have fallen short, and we really don’t know why. We don’t know why some people are able to take advantage of opportunities and education, and others are not. We don’t know how life events outside school impacts a child’s education inside. We need to apply the data collection and analytical tools of the private sector to measuring and improving society’s efforts to extend opportunity. Without this step, the conditions that led to the social unrest in Ferguson are unlikely to be improved.

Government has been engineering society to extend opportunity for many decades. We have funded public education, made sure students weren’t hungry, provided scholarships, the GI Bill, social services for families. We have funded organizations to provide after school programs, keep youths busy with sports, to provide mentoring and character building. These different initiatives have made live better for many people. And yet they have fallen short, they have not managed to extend opportunity well enough. Too many of our students leave high school without the ability to take advantage of the opportunities that are afforded to them.

Ferguson has also highlighted how little we actually know about what happens in urban neighborhoods. In the aftermath of the shooting, some African Americans noted the frustration of being repeatedly stopped by the police for no reason. But missing from the conversation was how often it actually happens. We don’t know if a young African American male in Ferguson is stopped and questions just once each year or weekly, or if most African American teens are never stopped and questioned at all. We just don’t know.

Educators recognize that what happens outside of school often has just as much impact on a student’s education as what happens inside. In poorer neighborhoods the life challenges can be extreme, from the family being evicted to going hungry or even seeing a murder. Hungry, tired students have a harder time making it to school and paying attention once they get there. Social Scientists have even begun to explore a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) experienced by urban youth in our most troubled neighborhoods.

At the moment we know very little of what happens to poor students outside the walls of their schools. We just don’t know. All of this information exists, of course, somewhere. It might not be compiled but the police know where shootings and murders occur. The Division of Family Services knows when children are in tenuous situations or if a child has been removed from a home. Churches and community organizations know which kids participate in afterschool programs. Schools track grades, attendance and discipline. But very little of this information is ever merged together to provide a full understanding of society’s impact on an individual.

Comprehensive data collection and analysis have transformed our economy. Where once businesses made guesses, now they are able to capture thousands of pieces of information, what is being bought, by whom, where distribution bottlenecks are occurring. Businesses are able to use data to find incremental improvements, things that can be a little more durable, a little less expensive. This really has been the transformative power of data – it gives every business the ability to make continuous improvements, to understand what they are doing right and what they can improve upon.

Information – what is actually happening – has to be the starting point of change. Committees have already been formed to figure out what went wrong in Ferguson and how to keep this from happening again. We all hope that they will come up with that one magic program, that new initiative that will yield instant change. But it’s not going to happen. We have been trying for fifty years to address these issues, with hundreds if not thousands of different initiatives – it’s hard to imagine any bold sweeping ideas left. Instead, change will come incrementally. Because this is the reality of social progress – real change comes with the cumulative effect of many thousands of small improvements. We don’t need to come up with new programs – we need to make the programs we have more effective.

This, ultimately, is why we need to implement comprehensive data collection and analysis to the many parts of our social system. This is the engineering part of social engineering – collecting data and analyzing outcomes. We need to understand what is happening to our citizens, their interactions with police and social services, their educational progress and after school program participation. We need to build a detailed social profile of each and every person. Doing so will require addressing privacy concerns and institutional inertia. But we have no choice – we cannot continue on the path we are on. If we as a nation are going to address the challenges that led to Ferguson, then we have to understand what is happening.

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