Of That

Brandt Redd on Education, Technology, Energy, and Trust

23 May 2014

Illusions of Success when Inputs are Confused with Outputs

Prosperity has been defined as, "the state of flourishing, thriving, good fortune and / or successful social status." In the United States we tend to measure prosperity in terms of wealth, or lack thereof. Indeed, the U.S. government defines poverty (the lack of prosperity) as having an income below $15,730 for a household of two. The trouble is, that this confuses the output (or outcome) of prosperity with one of its inputs, income (or wealth). And while the two values often correlate, they can be quite different.

In the early 1800's, Georgia gave away millions of acres of land through a series of land lotteries. Nearly everyone who was eligible entered the lottery because an individual had a roughly 1 in 5 chance of winning and a typical parcel was worth about the median net worth of a Georgia resident. A penniless person who entered the lottery had a one in five chance of suddenly becoming wealthier than half of the residents of the state.

When Hoyt Bleakly, of the University of Chicago, and Joseph Ferrie, of Northwestern University, learned of this event they found it to be a convenient natural experiment. Does handing out wealth to random individuals elevate their prosperity and does that prosperity carry over to future generations? The answer, at least in this particular case, seems to be "no." Even though wealth and prosperity are correlated, increasing wealth didn't increase the prosperity of the children. As Bleakley said on a Freakonomics podcast, "Maybe the resources have to come from outside the household, be it say a good public school. Maybe the resources have to come from the parents, but the parents don’t know how to provide it in terms of nurturing, in terms of reading and communicating ideas to their children, etc." In other words, wealth is only one of the contributors to prosperity and it may be among the least important.

Optimizing the Wrong Thing

When two features, like wealth and prosperity, are correlated, and one is easier to measure or influence than the other, a common mistake is to focus on the more convenient factor. The result is a host of unintended consequences.

This is a case where feedback loops offer insight:
A feedback loop with a short-circuit bypassing the system (or student).
In a proper feedback loop, we measure the output, compare it with the reference, and use it to choose the proper input. But when inputs are confused with outputs, the feedback loop is short-circuited – as with the red line in the above diagram. The evidence of this is when we get all kinds of reports showing how good the inputs are. Meanwhile, the real goal suffers.

A Pedagogical  feedback loop measures student outcomes (in the form of competencies or skills), compares them with standards of what students should know, and uses the result to choose appropriate learning activities. But, when inputs are confused with outputs we get reports of good student attendance, appropriate construction of curriculum, the prescribed amount of seat time, properly trained and certified teachers, high quality facilities, and all kinds of other reports about the inputs. Meanwhile, the output, in terms of student skills, remains unimproved.

Here are a few other inputs and outputs to consider:
To be sure, there's correlation in every one of these cases. But, just as with the Georgia Land Lottery, manipulating the input frequently diminishes the correlation and results in a less-than desired outcome. Focusing on, and reporting about the inputs can give the illusion of success. Focusing on the outcome helps identify other factors that contribute to the desired result.

Furthermore, excess focus on inputs results in missed opportunities. As Michael Horne and Katherine Mackey wrote, "Focusing on inputs has the effect of locking a system into a set way of doing things and inhibiting innovation; focusing on outcomes, on the other hand, encourages continuous improvement against a set of overall goals and can unlock a path toward the creation of a student-centric education system."

Incentives are Inputs

Just as mistaking outputs for inputs causes trouble, the reverse is also true. A 2011 study by the Hamilton Project compared incentives tied to inputs with incentives tied to outputs. Groups of students were offered financial incentives tied to input activities such as number of books read, time spent reading, or number of math objectives completed. Other groups were offered incentives tied to outcomes such as high test scores or class grades. The study found that input incentives were much more effective than output incentives. Among their recommendations are:
  • "Provide incentives for inputs, not outputs, especially for younger children."
  • "Think carefully about what to incentivize."
  • "Don't believe that all education incentives destroy intrinsic motivation."
This shouldn't be surprising. Incentives, at least when given to the student, are inputs. Incentivzing outcomes is a different kind of short-circuit in the feedback loop.
Feedback loop with a short-circuit bypassing instructional influence.
In a Pedagogical  feedback loop the instructional system interprets the results of assessment before passing them on to the student. When we incentivize the outcomes (or assessment thereof) we bypass the capacity of the education system to interpret student needs and prescribe the right learning activities.

It's notable that the Hamilton Project study found that incentivizing outcomes was especially ineffective for younger students. Among the goals of any educational system should be to develop students into independent learners. A mature, independent learner has taken on pedagogical skill and responsibility. For independent learners, incentivizing outcomes should be more effective.

Nevertheless, the Hamilton Project study didn't neglect outputs. In every experiment, the effect of the incentives was evaluated according to student outcomes. Only the point of intervention was changed.

Effective Measurement and Improvement

In 2005, New Hampshire abolished the Carnegie unit – a measure of seat time by which most U.S. schools quantify educational credits. "In its place, the state mandated that all high schools measure credit according to students’ mastery of material, rather than time spent in class." Thus, New Hampshire has shifted their fundamental measure of student achievement from an input to an output. Early results of that change are promising.

To be sure, optimizing certain inputs still has a positive impact. Otherwise schools would have completely failed since the institution of the Carnegie Unit in 1905. But shifting the focus from inputs to the outputs we wish to optimize will open the door to greater innovations and more rapid improvements in student achievement.

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