The Risks of Dangerous Dashboards in Basic Education

Lant Pritchett at the Center for Global Development: “On June 1, 2009 Air France flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed into the Atlantic Ocean killing all 228 people on board. While the Airbus 330 was flying on auto-pilot, the different speed indicators received by the on-board navigation computers started to give conflicting speeds, almost certainly because the pitot tubes responsible for measuring air speed had iced over. Since the auto-pilot could not resolve conflicting signals and hence did not know how fast the plane was actually going, it turned control of the plane over to the two first officers (the captain was out of the cockpit). Subsequent flight simulator trials replicating the conditions of the flight conclude that had the pilots done nothing at all everyone would have lived—nothing was actually wrong; only the indicators were faulty, not the actual speed. But, tragically, the pilots didn’t do nothing….

What is the connection to education?

Many countries’ systems of basic education are in “stall” condition.

A recent paper of Beatty et al. (2018) uses information from the Indonesia Family Life Survey, a representative household survey that has been carried out in several waves with the same individuals since 2000 and contains information on whether individuals can answer simple arithmetic questions. Figure 1, showing the relationship between the level of schooling and the probability of answering a typical question correctly, has two shocking results.

First, the difference in the likelihood a person can answer a simple mathematics question correctly differs by only 20 percent between individuals who have completed less than primary school (<PS)—who can answer correctly (adjusted for guessing) about 20 percent of the time—and those who have completed senior secondary school or more (>=SSS), who answer correctly only about 40 percent of the time. These are simple multiple choice questions like whether 56/84 is the same fraction as (can be reduced to) 2/3, and whether 1/3-1/6 equals 1/6. This means that in an entire year of schooling, less than 2 additional children per 100 gain the ability to answer simple arithmetic questions.

Second, this incredibly poor performance in 2000 got worse by 2014. …

What has this got to do with education dashboards? The way large bureaucracies prefer to work is to specify process compliance and inputs and then measure those as a means of driving performance. This logistical mode of managing an organization works best when both process compliance and inputs are easily “observable” in the economist’s sense of easily verifiable, contractible, adjudicated. This leads to attention to processes and inputs that are “thin” in the Clifford Geertz sense (adopted by James Scott as his primary definition of how a “high modern” bureaucracy and hence the state “sees” the world). So in education one would specify easily-observable inputs like textbook availability, class size, school infrastructure. Even if one were talking about “quality” of schooling, a large bureaucracy would want this too reduced to “thin” indicators, like the fraction of teachers with a given type of formal degree, or process compliance measures, like whether teachers were hired based on some formal assessment.

Those involved in schooling can then become obsessed with their dashboards and the “thin” progress that is being tracked and easily ignore the loud warning signals saying: Stall!…(More)”.