Metric Fixation : how standardized data impedes classroom innovation

From Jacques Tati’s  Playtime  (1967).  Image courtesy Les Films de Mon Oncle – Specta Films CEPEC

From Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967). Image courtesy Les Films de Mon Oncle – Specta Films CEPEC

I really appreciated this article, "Against metrics: how measuring performance by numbers backfires", by Jerry Z Muller, a professor of history at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D C..

"The key components of metric fixation," Muller writes, "are the belief that it is possible - and desirable - to replace professional judgement (acquired through personal experience and talent) with numerical indicators of comparative performances based upon standardized data (metrics)."

Ever since venturing into the world of education, this dichotomy has been my passion, and my nemesis - how do I reconcile data driven assessment with the non-measurable goals? At what point do grades and GPA's begin to drive education in the wrong direction?

Muller seems to be asking similar questions.

He goes on to say that "the most dramatic negative effect of metric fixation is its propensity to incentivize gaming" - an if/then reward system - that encourages professionals to "maximize the metrics in ways that are at odds with the larger purpose of the organization." Like grades over curiosity, resume virtues instead of eulogy virtues, and content over humanity.

Daniel Pink, the NYT and WSJ Bestselling Author of Drive, says, "When the profit motive becomes unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen," ethically sometimes but also in lame service and crappy products (via). In education, we call that teaching to the test which is also a lame service that ends with a crappy product. 

I think my favorite part of the article, though, was when Muller writes,

The source of trouble is that when people are judged by performance metrics (high stakes testing) they are incentivized to do what the metrics measure, and what the metrics measure will be some established goal. But that impedes innovation , which means doing something no yet established, indeed that hasn't even been tried out. Innovation involves experimentation. And experimentation includes the possibility, perhaps probability, of failure. 

How many classrooms have you been in that celebrate and embrace failure? That allow for innovation rather than memorization? 

I'll end with Muller's final words, "The more that work becomes a matter of filling in the boxes by which performance is to be measured and rewarded, the more it will repel those who think outside the box." 

You can see Daniel Pink's TED talk here or read his bestseller here (to date, it is one of my Mount Rushmore books for education). Or, you can watch a brief animated version of his thoughts below. It sums up most of his ideas, in a skiing across the water sort of way. 


For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  On Education  :  If school was like rock climbing  :  Prince EA's, "I just sued the school system!!!"

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