Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Squaring the circle

My recent posts have been labeled "Citizens first", which was all started by this post: Let's put citizens back in the frame.

The theme in that post was that early human societies developed to benefit their members. Our institutions have since grown so complex that they have lost touch with this purpose. Nowadays, they seem to serve practically everyone and everything but the ordinary citizen, and it's about time to set that right.

But recently, I've been prattling on about the arcane world of measurement - how we try to motivate people into certain behaviors by selective measurement of success. So, why is this important, and what's the connection?

The root problem is that governments and corporations are not motivated to think about ordinary individuals, let alone put their interests first. And why should they? I've talked a lot about measurement in various forms, and how often it leads to unwanted consequences, and here we see it in all its ugliness. Our world is the consequence of powerful measurements that reduce us to papers in ballot boxes and numbers on the bottom line. These organizations cannot possibly think of us as anything other than voters or consumers.

Which is scary, because these organizations dominate out lives.

My sense of hope is that we can take back control. That we can institute new ways of measuring success that will achieve beneficial outcomes for ordinary citizens.

For example, what if leaders and policymakers in education were recognized and rewarded not on exam pass rates in schools, but on some entirely independent measure of how well educated the general population was? What if the leaders and policymakers in healthcare were rewarded not by short waiting lists and how many drugs they can push, but according to the overall health of the general population? After all, that is what we pay them for, isn't it?

And what if the profitability of corporations was intrinsically tied to the net benefits they bring to the society in which they operate? This last example is a distinct shift in focus. What is the purpose of a car manufacturer? Is it to sell as many cars as possible, or is it to offer people the benefit of easy and convenient transport without inflicting undue harm in the process? Is the purpose of a grocery store to push produce, or to feed the local population? Because the profit & loss account is the only measure that matters today, corporate behavior leans towards the former end of the spectrum rather than the (IMO more desirable) latter end.

I spent some time examining measurement in the last few posts in order to show that this is no easy task. It is, after all, what many well-meaning people have been trying to do all along. They just haven't been very successful.

We need measures that are appropriate, which tell a rounded story, and which cannot easily be fudged.

To do that, we need to elevate the dark alchemy that is practiced (somewhat haphazardly) today into a precise science.

There's enough research into human psychology that I reckon we have a good handle on what makes individuals tick, but individuals are not really the problem. The problem is in the emergent phenomena that crop up at all sorts of levels when people get together into larger and larger groups, and the groups themselves start interacting and showing their own unique behaviors.

This is where the world has run out of control.


  1. Your conjecture is appealing, but the problem still lies in finding reliable measures and outcomes. For example, how do you propose that school systems measure the education levels of graduates without using exams?

    Qualitative research can be subjective, and so can quantitative. However, the latter has a better chance of producing more objective and accurate outcomes than the previous. Without standardized tests, it would be difficult to assess the academic population in public schools.

    IMHO, the problem doesn't lie with the measuring tool, it is with the persons who implement the exams. I'm not a teacher, but do have children. There have been times when I've observed that they are being taught to the tests. This is due to the "No Child Left Behind" policy. As I'm sure you know, it was designed to hold schools accountable for the student's success. What it didn't take into account were the external factors, such as parental involvement, various IQ levels and learning disabilities.

    I'm not sure how to resolve this problem, but perhaps we shouldn't be scrutinizing the design of the measuring tools, as much as those who implement them. Great post, I enjoy challenging theories that make me think.

  2. Andrea, I had to read your comment a couple of times to pinpoint what it was that was troubling me. I need to work on my powers of explanation! I wasn't suggesting doing away with exams - I think they are vital for measuring the education achievement of individuals.

    Where I think things go astray is when you start measuring the performance of schools by the exam pass rate - because that is only part of the story of how good a school is. That invites behavior on the part of the school to stack the odds in their favor, usually to the detriment of the students.

    Also, if a school district had to respond to a more holistic measure, such as adult literacy & numeracy, that was conducted by someone outside their control, then they would be more likely to invest in measures to truly raise education levels across the board and do things like get parents more involved. That is the kind of thing I'm after.

  3. Hi Botanist. Thanks for coming by.
    You ask some big questions. It brought to mind the scandal of those banks setting interest rates higher than they needed to be, with world-wide repercussions. I just saw someone label them 'Banksters.' Good one.


  4. Individuals can be or cannot be a problem according with the leaders they have and the message they promote.. I witnessed myself how much a good propaganda can affect the intellect of some astonishing individuals. I come from an ex communist country and I lived in communism til I was 12.

  5. Denise, examples like that are why I think this subject is so important. I was chatting to someone about this at work, who pointed out that if we analyzed organizations as if they were people, they would all be diagnosed as psychopaths. And to think that things like banks have the power to ruin the world!

    Unikorna, that is the whole point...individuals themselves are not the problem, it the pressures they come into when they are part of a group. Those pressures make them do and think things that they would never have dreamed of if left to themselves.

  6. Interesting and extremely thought provoking post. My comment sort of sidesteps the focus of your issues, but I wanted to bring it up anyway. This is just my opinion, but I have a real problem with the public school system right now. I have one daughter in the Magnet program with a straight A average, which she deserves. She actually comprehends and understand the materials and does well when tested. My problem stems from my hearing impaired child, who is extremely bright. She is in a regular classroom (she has a cochlear implant) and she does well academically and socially. She is a varsity cheerleader and involved in other activities.

    Here is my problem. I know for a fact that she is not as (and intelligent is not the word I am looking for), she is not as learned as her standardized test indicate. She had good grades, but they are the result of intensive study, tutoring and other resources we take advantage of. However, I can tell from the way she reads and how she answers basic ordinary day to day questions to something as silly as trivial pursuit questions when we play games, that she does not have the knowledge or skills that her test indicate. I am also aware that the school she attends is one of the only four to five star blue ribbon schools in our state. The school is graded by how well the students perform on these test and I do not see how she and other students who have varying degrees of learning disabilities such as dyslexia score as high as the test indicate. I do not want to push the subject because of course I want her to advance to high school next year. I am just afraid that she will lack the necessary skill to excel in a larger school without the aid of teachers and TA's who have been working with her since she was three years old.

    I don't even know if any of this makes sense and I apologize for rambling off topic, but you included education and the grading measurement tools. Something inside of me questions the validity of some of the tools that are used .

  7. Melissa, I would say that your observations were entirely on-topic. It sounds like you suspect that students' test scores are artificially high, and maybe the school is influencing that somehow in order to get itself good grades. If so, then that is an excellent example of what I'm talking about: the measurement (test scores) become an end in themselves rather than the true outcome they are trying to represent. In this case, the school's self-interested wish for students to gain high scores could be detrimental to the students themselves. This is a valid concern, and not off-topic at all. Thanks for your comment.


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