Gameable Metrics in Education

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan went after Texas education policy (and, by extension, Rick Perry). The faults and achievements of Texas education interests me less here than the metrics that he used: per-pupil spending and drop-out rates (he also attacked class sizes, though it does not actually appear that class sizes in Texas have gotten larger as of yet).

While it can certainly be argued that high dropout rates are indicative of a problem, and that higher spending correlates with better results on the whole (outside of Washington DC, of course), I don’t particularly care for these metrics. Mostly, because they’re easy enough to fix without actually accomplishing much.

Whether higher spending may correlate with better results or not, on the whole, it’s clearly not an absolute correlation. In other words, simply throwing money at education won’t do a whole lot of good if they’re spent on, say, a lavish new football stadium rather than things that matter. But, if we use spending alone as a metric, you can paper over any sort of lack of achievement. We’re #1 because spending is #1. (It’s also unclear as to whether Texas has actually reduced spending, or been more restrained in the overall growth of spending. I haven’t really seen the data.)

Drop-out rates are more of a mixed bag, in my view. My home state has one of the highest drop-out rates in the country. The main reason for this is not because the schools are failing, necessarily, but because the state has a loose drop-out policy. Traditionally a farming and ranching state, there is a history of here of kids dropping out of school early to go work on the farms. Maybe this is a good idea or maybe not. It’s a matter of priorities. Notably, the state is looking at changing its policies, in large part for appearance reasons.

Largely, though, the decision to stay in school or drop out is a personal and family one. When we talk about what influence parents have or schools have over results, this is one of those things that is most home-driven. If a parent doesn’t want their kid to drop out, they can’t really drop out (until they are emancipated). While it might be possible for a kid that wants to attend school to be forced by his parents to drop out, that’s generally unlikely.

So what is the state’s role here? Well, the state can create truancy laws, the schools can hire truancy officers. And the kids can be dragged to school kicking and screaming. When a kid doesn’t want to be there, and when the parents don’t care, it might be worthwhile to question the degree to which they are likely to actually receive an education. I suppose I am skeptical. And I am also skeptical that we can bring them in by making school a cooler place to be. But I could be wrong on that! And, in the greater scheme of things, it may be good policy.

But it’s not indicative of much. A governor with presidential aspirations can fix all of these problems with one fell swoop: Hire a bunch of truancy officers at $100,000 a year (more spending!), have them drag everyone to school by the ear (better attendance!), and pass through socially promoted graduations (higher graduation rates!).

Of course, all of this bites into the larger apple of how, precisely, we do gauge schools. Standardized testing is unpopular for a plethora of reasons, among them because they are supposedly easier to game and because so much of it is dependent home and economic situations. Not nearly as simple to game, though, as spending more and keeping more kids bound to school with a ball and chain. And far less dependent on home situations as attendance. And, unlike with standardized testing, can bear no back-and-forth relationship with how much they learn within the school’s doors.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. The older I get the more I wonder about to what degree school improvement measures in general are a waste. In the cases that you reference here, Will, I fail to see what the good of revisiting any policy change would be. If the kid doesn’t care about his education and later earning potential, and his parents or guardians don’t either, what policy on Earth would make a difference?

    I feel like I know what we need to make different to get the most improvement in education results, but I am at a loss as to how to accomplish it: We need to get this country to stop thinking that education, learning and academic accomplishment are a thing of shame. People I know from other countries tell me that kids who excel at academics are to some degree honored by peers and adults alike through informal social mechanisms (e.g.: by not giving them wedgies, or by agreeing to date them). I can;t turn on talk radio in our country without hearing endless dribble about how everything would be better if we didn’t listen to egghead scientists, or mathematicians, or people who read books that weren’t by Dan Brown.

    I think adults trying to make school “cool” is a sure way to make it uncool for kids. But if adults started respecting education, reading, science, math, critical thinking, etc. I think this would go a long way to helping national results.

    • From what I understand, most of the time for most of the students, we actually do a pretty good job. So the question is, what to do about the kids who don’t care. Or whose care is so vague as to be negligible. Or who believe that they can’t succeed no matter what they do.

      You’re right that a whole lot of that comes down to culture. I think one of the more base reasons I am supportive of school choice is to give the children that do care, or those whose parents do, the ability to take their kids out and put them in an environment where they are surrounded by care. Of course, that leaves some pretty uncomfortable questions about what happens to the schools of don’t care.

      But I really do see overly simple metrics like spending and attendance as great ways to paper over everything. We care because we put money into it. We keep them in school because being in school is good. As an ends?

      • “…the question is, what to do about the kids who don’t care.”

        I thought that the answer was “blame it on the parents”. That does seems to be the answer for every other problem with education in America.

        • Gentlemen, I believe you’re all overlooking something very important: the Mafia. What happens when the greasy, necklace-wearing, ring-wearing on their pinkie finger, Mafia thugs want a piece of the lemonade action? Ah-ha, I bet you didn’t of that one, did you?

          The goons shake down the little kids for a percentage of the profits, and when they’re not profitable enough for Fatty Genaro, it’s bustin’ kneecaps time. This is no joke–I’ve seen it happen–many times. Not the best example of successful capitalism, think I.

  2. Higher spending produces better results for the teachers’ unions.

    I gather that cost of living is fairly low in Texas, as are real estate prices specifically. It costs less to build a school, and it costs less to fill it with teachers. Obviously per-pupil spending is going to be lower.

    And of course graduation rates need to be normalized for race. Texas has one of the highest Hispanic populations in the country, and according to this map it has the highest graduation rate of any state bordering Mexico.

Comments are closed.