Big Data and your education

I wrote recently about a program the College Board is testing to use data about your school, neighborhood, and family to give you a sort of adversity score that colleges can use for admissions purposes. I originally titled the post "Big Data is coming to college admissions," but instead decided to focus on the personal implications.

But since then I've seen two more stories about algorithms--and people gaming the algorithms--that affect your K-12 education and college choices.

Common Core and Twitter bots. Since 42 states follow Common Core standards, you're probably familiar with Common Core. You're also probably familiar with criticism against Common Core. Most of the anti-Common Core messages I've seen on social media have been about the confusing math for younger students, things like this:

There's also a pretty big share of "Common Core is Un-American" messages, like this one:

Here is an article about public perception of Common Core, which underwent a major shift in a short time, and the social media campaigns orchestrated to sway perception. Public approval for Common Core went from 83% in 2013 to 50% in 2016. Among Republicans, approval went from 82% to 39%. According to researches who did some major analysis, though, a lot of the sentiment against Common Core was stirred up by a small group using a "botnet" to send the same message from thousands of different accounts. The bots made it look like there were a lot more individual and spontaneous protest tweets than was the case. This aggressive and exaggerated campaign likely did a lot to sway public opinion, as the automated voices were able to overpower all other voices.

That's not to say, of course, that there are no legitimate complaints against Common Core, or that all complaints are orchestrated by a single group using tweetbots. But it does seem to me that there is now a high-tech version of the person who "argues" by just talking really loud and ignoring others until the other side gives up arguing with them.

You can check out the full, interactive report from the "hashtagcommoncore project" here. It's fascinating, and says as much about social media as it does education.

US News & World Report rankings. This really should come as no surprise, but universities are gaming the college ranking system used by U.S. News & World Report. 

Here is a story from fall 2016 about how a Saudi university--only two years old at the time--paid a lot of math professors a lot of money to do very little...except boost the school's ranking in mathematics to higher than MIT or Cambridge.

Maybe that sounds like an isolated incident of someone being clever.

So here's a New York TImes story from 2012 about ways that colleges have gamed the system. 

And here's a Forbes story from 2015 about how private universities are able to boost their ranking.

And here's an Inside Higher Ed piece from 2009 about the crafty ways schools game the system.

And here's a lengthy Boston Magazine article from 2014 about how Northeastern did it.

And here's a National Review piece from 2013 about how Bowdoin did it.

Are the schools liars and cheaters? Not really. They're finding flaws in the ranking system and taking advantage to make themselves look better in the ratings. But those ratings are only important because high school students and their parents put so much weight on them. If you're using "Best Colleges" lists to decide where you want to go to school, you--not just the ranking system--are getting played.

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