June 1, 2021

Jerry Z. Muller: Against Metrics: How Measuring Performance by Numbers Backfires

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This piece is not written specifically about education, however, every teacher in the Age of Test-Based Evaluation and Data-Driven Decision Making will recognize all of the problems cited here. 

More and more companies, government agencies, educational institutions and philanthropic organizations are today in the grip of a new phenomenon. I’ve termed it ‘metric fixation’. The key components of metric fixation are the belief that it is possible – and desirable – to replace professional judgment (acquired through personal experience and talent) with numerical indicators of comparative performance based upon standardized data (metrics); and that the best way to motivate people within these organizations is by attaching rewards and penalties to their measured performance.

To the debit side of the ledger must also be added the transactional costs of metrics: the expenditure of employee time by those tasked with compiling and processing the metrics in the first place – not to mention the time required to actually read them. As the heterodox management consultants Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman note in Six Simple Rules (2014), employees end up working longer and harder at activities that add little to the real productiveness of their organization, while sapping their enthusiasm. In an attempt to staunch the flow of faulty metrics through gaming, cheating and goal diversion, organizations often institute a cascade of rules, even as complying with them further slows down the institution’s functioning and diminishes its efficiency.

Contrary to commonsense belief, attempts to measure productivity through performance metrics discourage initiative, innovation and risk-taking. The intelligence analysts who ultimately located Osama bin Laden worked on the problem for years. If measured at any point, the productivity of those analysts would have been zero. Month after month, their failure rate was 100 per cent, until they achieved success. From the perspective of the superiors, allowing the analysts to work on the project for years involved a high degree of risk: the investment in time might not pan out. Yet really great achievements often depend on such risks.

There’s more–and education does make an appearance. It’s nice when somebody outside the field gets it. Read the whole piece here.

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