Student Handout #1
Diversity in Product Design



In Cathy O’Neil’s book, Weapons of Math Destruction, she recounts the story of Sarah Wysocki, a teacher who was popular with students, parents, and administration. Like all teachers at the time in Washington DC, Wysocki’s job security was based on a “value-added” algorithm called IMPACT that assigned points based on various criteria. In an attempt to improve the local school system, teachers in the lowest 2-5% of those points were fired. The scale was developed based on observations of previous teachers. O’Neil writes:

“Yet at the end of the 2010-11 school year, Wysocki received a miserable score on her IMPACT evaluation. Her problem was a new scoring system known as value-added modeling, which purported to measure her effectiveness in teaching math and language skills. That score, generated by an algorithm, represented half of her overall evaluation, and it outweighed the positive reviews from school administrators and the community. This left the district with no choice but to fire her, along with 205 other teachers who has IMPACT scores below the minimal threshold.”

O’Neil says later in her book that when Wysocki tried to find out how the algorithm worked and why she was awarded so few points, no one could tell her.

Discuss with your group

  1. What was the product?
  2. What was good about the product?
  3. What was the problem with the product?
  4. What diverse voices were likely missing from the design team that created this product?
  5. What ethical issues do you think this scenario presents?

Be prepared to summarize for the class the scenario and the answers to the discussion questions.