Rage Against The EduMachine

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By Dan Koch


First off, a recommendation: If you don’t listen to Gimlet’s Reply All Podcast, you need to start. PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman talk about the internet and crowd-sourced culture and how it informs the 3D lives we live. It’s fascinating. If anything, it destroys the myth of the divide between online life, technology and the “real.” Vogt and Goldman cover stories that showcase how we interact with the world and the implications of those interactions--whether it be through memes, online feuds, data collection, or one of my favorite segments called “Yes, Yes, No” in which they bring up an online trope or story that has gained traction and see if their boss understands it--before attempting to break it down to its smallest parts.

However, one of their most recent episodes, a two-parter called “The Crime Machine,” floored me. (Note: There’s some difficult subject matter and language in this one). The language wasn’t what shocked me, though (I’m from New York and most curse words sound like commas to me). It was the story itself. Why was I noticing so many parallels in this origin story of the tool that came to be known as CompStat, the acronym for the New York Police Department’s accountability process for crime tracking, and practices that exist in the educational space?

Here’s a recap based on my initial listening, with some numbers provided with the aid of WikiPedia:

Jack Maple, a NYC transit cop during the 1980s, noticed that the most frequent (and violent) type of crime in the subway was robbery. After years of noticing this uptick he started tracking the locations and frequencies of these robberies--pinpointing them on maps and hanging them up on walls. He affectionately called these “charts of the future,” allowing him to see patterns in the crimes and dispatch  officers to those locations. It was effective--lowering the crime rate in the subways by 27%. When the head of the New York Transit police noticed this change, he promoted Maple to Deputy Police Commissioner. By 1994, Maple’s method was dubbed “COMPSTAT” (Computer Analysis of Computer Statistics) and revolutionized the department--becoming a symbol of police accountability. His original goal was simple: treat every crime seriously. Pretend it was happening to your mother. Would that influence your follow-up work?

This method of accountability required police officers to capture detailed reports of all police activity. This included arrests, summonses, significant cases, crime patterns, and police activity. Lieutenants would then present these reports--which contained statistical analysis of their precincts’ police activities--to Jack Maple and other influential stakeholders in the police department. This would allow for wide-spread initiatives to deal with crime patterns gleaned from these reports (some of these Lieutenants, who had never been questioned like this before, found themselves feeling anxious for the first time about their officers and practices). This would also allow for wide-spread initiatives to deal with crime patterns gleaned from these reports.

It worked. These ideas and tactics, when spread across the entire NYPD, were met with dramatic results: Major crimes dropped 39 percent in 27 months (1). This caused a complete shift in how police stations were held accountable to the crime rates in their cities.

When crime kept dropping for 20 years, though, some people started to raise their eyebrows.

It turns out that to keep crime rates down, some chiefs just stopped reporting crime:

“So [Jack would] set up these terrifying CompStat meetings, and he told people, you are responsible for the crime in your neighborhood. If your crime numbers are going in the wrong direction, you are going to be in trouble...it was like pretty soon nobody had a choice anymore. The chiefs felt like they were keeping the crime rate down for the commissioner. The commissioner felt like he was keeping the crime rate down for the mayor. And the mayor, the mayor had to keep the crime rate down because otherwise real estate prices would crash, tourists would go away. It was like the crime rate itself became the boss.”

So basically, CompStat had taken the most basic measurement for whether the city was safe or not and made it unreliable. The crime rate itself was a lie (2).

Wow. Upon first listen, my immediate reaction was to cry foul and shower criticisms toward this practice of fudging numbers, and aligning false data to meet the demand of a higher power--and I still have those feelings. It flies in the face of the original intent of the program: to treat every crime as though it was of extreme importance; to put as many resources into solving and preventing the lower level crimes against people with little to no financial resources as those higher level robberies grand in scope and scale. To aggressively drive down real crime with the aid of real data. The tragedy here is that pretty quickly, the system itself became a behemoth to tame rather than to use as an aid for good, solid police practice.

We tend to fall victim to this practice in education, too. We have so many initiatives and programs that are going to “fix” our kids--which, let’s be honest--really means get their scores up--that the sheer manpower it takes to implement, track, and hold schools accountable for the results derived from them is almost impossible to keep speed with (let’s not forget that a lot of these programs cost districts and schools dollars--so the sheer desire for them to “work” is even more skewed).

Competition isn’t inherently negative. I’d never advocate for schools to throw away systems for making sure our students are learning--but the insatiable desire for schools to find the magic bullet that will inevitably result in “learning gains” is troubling at best, and at worst...self-destructive.

“And the riot be the rhyme of the unheard.”

This single line, blistering commentary from Rage Against The Machine’s “Calm Like A Bomb” is a reference to a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. The line suggests that when the people are ignored by those in power, an upheaval may be the only way in which they can show their displeasure and take action for possible change. It got me thinking about one of my go-to sources of Twitter inspiration, Amy Fast. She has a way of using 240 characters or less to tweet things that I often have to take several days to process. Here are two of her most retweeted and favorited tweets (images link to tweets):

This concept of “measurement” in the educational space is something I’ve struggled with since I first became a teacher. I taught writing for six years, and had one experience that completely opened my eyes to the fact that in many ways, we’re simply turning our children into hamsters on a wheel. Our state writing exam had recently changed the criteria, focusing less on creative writing and more on research-based methods and kids’ ability to incorporate arguments found in sources into their writing. This change was also accompanied with an added challenge: the passing score for the test would now be a “4,” and not a “3” like in past years. Sure, teachers were given scraps of anchor text sets to help their students sort of Franken-write their way into passing, but sure enough, despite many of our best efforts, that year, students statewide failed to meet that “4” score. So what happened? The state reneged on their initial mandate and wheeled the passing score back to a “3.” And there was much rejoicing (eye roll).

Are we really serving our kids in schools by constantly measuring their performance, and when they fail to meet it, changing the way they’re measured to better suit our goals for our schools? Is this really helping anyone? What message does this send to everyone involved that has a stake in this process? What if we simply took our state standards, and somewhere along the way, gave them to our kids and simply said, “Hey, can you find a way to show me what you know about this? I’ll help you.” What if we, as an institution, started doing what the Anne & Nate Levine Academy is doing, by adding “show what you know” boxes on tests--so students who may not know the exact answer to what we’re asking of them can still show what they know? What if we stopped feeding the machine and started feeding our kids what they need?

“A decade of the weapon of sound above ground

No shelter if you're looking for shade

I lick shots at the brutal charade.”

Rage Against The Machine; Guerilla Radio

1 "The Crime-Fighting Program That Changed New York Forever - NYMag." 2 Mar. 2018, http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/03/the-crime-fighting-program-that-changed-new-york-forever.html. Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.

2 "#128 The Crime Machine, Part II by Reply All from Gimlet Media." 12 Oct. 2018, https://www.gimletmedia.com/reply-all/128-the-crime-machine-part-ii. Accessed 16 Oct. 2018.