“You Get What You Measure”

You get what you measure.

That’s another well-known truth in business organizations. When you want a particular kind of outcome (say, increased customer base for a lagging product), you require your workers to measure that outcome and report the results. The effect is that workers focus on improving their measurements – sometimes to the detriment of other equally-important activities (say, keeping and growing existing customers).

So too with education – fixing, or closing, schools that fail to perform is sensible. The question is: what does it mean for a school to “perform“? What are school teachers and administrators being held accountable for? What is a successful student?

Too often, the performance metric is a test score or its sibling metric, a grade or GPA.

But it is not the purpose of education to get simply good scores or a high GPA. The purpose of education is (as someone wrote in a Facebook comment) “a long-term investment in future generations that pays off in intangible ways like future productivity, quality of life, and earning potential.”

You measure a school’s performance by how well the students do in the long-term. Do they complete whatever they study next, whether at a university or a skills-training school? Do they become a contributor to society at large – do they earn a living wage, suitable to support their family and raise the next generation? Do they provide service back to society in some way, through charitable works or advances in their occupation?

These are long-term, 30+-year metrics of performance. So, let’s be more practical – a school’s performance takes 10 years to measure after the students leave the school. Along the way, you can measure trends, but your final judgement will have to be deferred until that 10-year mark.

But, too often, we refuse to wait that long. Just as corporations are sometimes focused on the next 90 days, rather than the next 5 years, so do governments focus on that short span between taking office and competing for re-election. These 2-year, 4-year, or even 6-year time horizons distort priorities, distort metrics, and distort judgements about how to identify success or failure.

If we told educators that we would measure their performance on a 10-year window into their students’ achievements, how would that change the way they teach?