The full price of success
Measurement can be a powerful tool. It can make it harder to fool ourselves about how things are really going. Numerical measures are often simple and quick to digest, helping make sense of a complex picture. And, as any gamer will tell you, progress towards tangible targets can be highly motivational.
Yet, inevitably, a measure is only a snapshot of performance, a slice or sample of the domain that we really value. It is the map, not the territory. There is much of value that is not measured; there are trade-offs between different outcomes. And when we mistake the measure for the reality itself, rather than a mere indicator of a more complex underlying picture, we start to get into serious trouble.
As I have written on many occasions, it is the relationship between accountability and measurement that generates many of these mistakes. Under normal circumstances, when looking at a particular measure, we can use common sense to put it into perspective. When we are held accountable against a number in some demanding way, then the measure actually becomes a ‘reality’ for us. Generally speaking, the higher the stakes, the less useful and accurate a measure becomes – because it distorts what is not measured and becomes subject to gaming, even deception.
When we choose measures for ourselves, that is often healthy. Do as much of that as is economical. Use them as prompts for debate or the stimulus for action. Use your common sense. When we are measured by others, or when we measure others, then greater caution is needed.
This is true in many domains, but is especially evident in education today. There are two typical flaws with measurement in education today:
First, because the stakes are often so high, we encourage and almost require the neglect of any outcomes that are not measured or not easily measurable. In primary schools, we focus on maths and literacy. These are important, but time spent on science has declined since it ceased to be measured. Even worse, time spent on extra curricular activity in year six is greatly narrowed. And even things we can measure are only imperfect indicators of the actual outcomes we value. A grade in an exam is tangible, for example, and useful, but it doesn’t perfectly map against the depth and breadth of learning in a subject.
Second, because we obsess on outcomes, we seldom look at the true price paid for those outcomes.
These flaws are connected. Neglect of non-measured outcomes is one price paid (usually by the student). More broadly, through a high stakes and narrowly quantified definition of performance, we allow institutions to appear high performing by externalising some of their true costs: they make other actors in the system pay some of the price for their results (while keeping hold of the rewards). In effect, they are borrowing their results from others. A school with rapid turnover of staff due to high workload, where many of those who leave exit the profession, is effectively wasting the country’s expenditure on training; not to mention the good will and talent of the teachers.
Some of the borrowed resources properly belong to other actors within the system, and are taken from them because of an imbalance of power. Some resources are in common ownership, and can be over-exploited.
This has a number of unpleasant consequences. It is essentially unfair, of course. It also sets an unattainable benchmark for what can generally be achieved that others are expected to aspire to. It is impossible for all institutions to attain this level if doing so requires covertly borrowing resources from others. This feature also distorts improvement: we are expected to learn from these organisations but they are not truly good at what they do; they have simply acquired more resources from others to deliver their results. It is like trying to learn the secrets of making money from someone who inherited their wealth.
These outcomes are not sustainable at a system level because there is a finite amount of resource and we can’t keep borrowing it from each other indefinitely. Like some kind of subtle Ponzi scheme it will eventually collapse – usually leaving the most vulnerable with the bill.
If we want sustainable success, we must find some way to account for all the resources and assets used to achieve it. We need to look at the price paid for the results.
When it comes to education, I believe that academic outcomes are important – both in their own right and as a gateway to further opportunities – although I would define ‘academic’ more broadly than the current Ebacc. But I think we should closely monitor three conditions or boundaries for how these results are achieved. There are both negative (harms to avoid) and positive (ways of giving back) aspects to these conditions:
Workforce – are outcomes achieved without burning out staff? More positively: are they achieved while developing and increasing the capacity of staff? Turnover and short term absence are good indicators, as is career progression of current and former staff members.
Students – are outcomes achieved without narrowing the curriculum in areas not measured or reducing the extra-curricular offer, and without creating excessive pressure and anxiety? More positively: do students receive a rich and broad offer and experience a positive and humane environment which enhances their wellbeing?
System – are outcomes achieved without creating undue pressure on other schools, most notably by manipulating the student intake through covert or overt selection or off-rolling. More positively: does the school actively seek to serve the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in its community and contribute to the wider family of schools?
Before holding up any school’s results as a model for others, I would want to know if these boundary conditions are met in either minimal or positive form. (And, by the way, there are plenty of schools who do meet them.) I want to know who is really paying. This would show sustainable, earned success and be worthy of emulation and transfer.
This is similar to arguments on environmental sustainability or corporate responsibility. The school should operate within its carrying capacity and not unfairly deplete shared resources, for example. Similarly, it is possible for a business to look highly profitable in the short term, by refusing to pay a living wage, or short changing suppliers, or avoiding taxes and regulations, for example. But that business is not accounting for its full costs – it is asking the rest of us to pick up those costs.
Note that I am not proposing a balanced scorecard or basket of measures. I am not suggesting that staff welfare, for example, is the reason a school exists. It is a boundary condition or principle that should not be violated in pursuit of a school’s core purpose. This may be a subtle distinction but I think it is an important one.
Thinking about sustainable success, about what is not measured, and properly accounting for the real cost of achieving results should be a central part of school policy. Not only will it generate broader consent among stakeholders, but it will ensure that the policy itself is sustainable. Too many initially good ideas tend towards the extreme, become a panacea, and create a backlash when their costs, risks and inevitable downsides become evident.
Success still matters. This isn’t about stasis or mediocrity. We just need to be sure that the success is real rather than a mirage concocted under the pressure of onerous targets. It’s about finding the real success by properly accounting for the full price paid. I wonder if we would find some different role models if we did this more often?