“These aren’t the metrics you are looking for”

Obi-wan Kenobi, Jedi legend, was known for using mind tricks on the weak-minded

According to ISC Research, ten years ago there were about 8,000 international schools. Today that number stands close to 13,000. The growth is staggering. Indeed, a recent (illuminating and challenging) Bloomberg article postulates that on average, two new international schools open each day. It has become an incredibly competitive market as more and more families want a piece of the action. In this case, the action appears to be a definition of success that culminates with admission to a top tier university. It’s a commodity, for example, that has already attracted a record-high 311,948 Ivy League applications for the Class of 2023 with a record-low acceptance rate of 6.78%. What does this mean? Well, it means that if you think the market is competitive at the moment, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

So how exactly do these schools compete?  I presume that there are many who make a good living from being able to answer this question.  However, my own observations over the last decade are that families often make weighted decisions based on a mixture of the following: reputation (prestige); exam results; track record with university destinations; facilities; faculty; the range of activities; inspection/accreditation reviews; cost; and my absolutely favourite…the dark promise of academic rigour (and the implicit permission to do what it takes to succeed).

But the big one, the unavoidable elephant in the room, is the school’s exam results.  So often, this is the North Star Metric (NSM) by which schools (and the market) determine how they are doing.  An NSM is something that meets the need to simplify and reduce many other things that an organisation does down to a single measure.  Some famous NSMs we might be familiar with include:

  • Facebook – monthly active users (I don’t contribute here)
  • Spotify – time spent listening (a little bit here)
  • Uber – rides per week (nope)
  • Airbnb – booked nights (I wish)
  • Amazon – number of purchases per month (I’m a shareholder!)

Dark side metrics?

In The Tyranny of Metrics, Jerry Z. Muller attempts to outline why we might be wary about leaning too far into metrics. There are two particular thinkers he introduces, with two related laws for us to consider.

The first is Campell’s Law:

The more a quantitative metric is visible and used to make important decisions, the more it will be gamed—which will distort and corrupt the exact processes it was meant to monitor.

The second is is Goodhart’s law:

Anything that can be measured and rewarded will be gamed.

In essence, the more visible, quantifiable, and important a metric is, the more it is vulnerable to gaming and toxicity to its initial purpose.  Muller does not actually say that we should avoid metrics (far from it), or that they are harmful, but he does counsel against the worship of metrics or what he terms “metrics fixation”. There are loads of great exemplars on the internet about metrics that have produced unwanted outcomes.  Here are two I found and enjoyed:

Stop taking hard cases – Surgeons are often judged by how often there are complications or deaths in their surgeries, which affects their marketability and insurance rates. Unintended consequences: Many surgeons stop taking high-risk or complicated cases, which results in people who really need help getting inferior care.

The number of venomous snakes – A leader in India said too many people were dying from venomous snakes, so he offered money to anyone who brought him a dead one. Unintended consequences: People started breeding venomous snakes in their homes, so they could kill them and bring them in for cash payment.

Factory education

So when a school’s NSM is reduced to the sum of their exam results, what might we expect to happen? Well, the good news is that it will probably result in higher exam results and everyone will be well pleased. Unintended consequences: The thing is, it is not hard to achieve higher grades if that is genuinely all that is important. Indeed, here are some of the ways that schools might be affected by a results-based NSM:

  • Admissions becomes more selective
  • Students are prevented from taking examinations
  • Thresholds are established for taking exams
  • Academic rigour is dialed up
  • Curriculum choices are narrowed
  • Student course selections are directed
  • External tutoring is encouraged
  • Teachers teach to the test and students are drilled
  • Students who do not buy-in or keep up are excluded (formally or informally)
  • ….Factory education

If high exam results are a school’s NSM then we should expect high results. However, we might also expect to see issues of diversity, access, inclusion, stress, anxiety and mental health. We might also see schools so focused on individualism that they lose sight of any broader purpose of education that they might claim to prepare students for.

Light side metrics?

There are so many ways to determine the health of a school beyond results.  There’s no escaping what exam results can tell you about a school, but I do wonder if schools can do more to define themselves beyond exam results. One impact of COVID in schools has been how parents have elevated the importance of mental health and wellbeing in their children. Social isolation and well-documented failures in the exam system have made many parents question whether a laser focus on academic rigour is worth the price to be paid (on several levels).

I do wonder what would happen if a school decided to make well-being its NSM. Like…total focus. Imagine if it was possible to put together a credible league table based on student health or satisfaction? What if that table was used by the likes of Spears or WhichschoolAdvisor to promote the best schools in the world? Perhaps it could force schools to complete in different ways? More physical education, less homework, flexible timings, blended learning, more arts participation, more focus on the learning experience, less individualism and more world-centred and holistic learning…I would really welcome that.

Would this mean that students might thrive and…dare I say it…end up doing well in their exams? I think so. Conversely, cognisant of both Goodheart and Campbell, there is every chance that there would be a load of unintended consequences I haven’t even thought of. For example, an admissions system that starts to pre-screens for healthy children only, or a situation where students are discouraged from seeking support services, or as a result of trying to please everyone, ends up being even more self-serving than the exams factory. Hmmm, not sure that’s what I want either.

Move along…

Given the diminishing return of more schools and students competing for the same number of prestigious university places each year, there will come a point where schools will need to find new ways to compete. I think it will be on health and welfare. If schools can find a way of doing that, of showing how well they do that, it would be transformative. Maybe the only way of achieving this is by committing to longitudinal data…but that’s something schools are not very good at tapping into because we are so focused on the front-end of education. Perhaps we need to turn that around and start focusing on the back-end of education…the bit we all say we are preparing children for in the first place?

With thanks to folk I’ve been chatting to over the last week or so about this one, particularly Sanjay Perera, Clare Batten and Bob Leung

6 thoughts on ““These aren’t the metrics you are looking for”

  1. Thanks. I enjoyed this. Part of me believes that the competition that you mention towards the end is the problem, and that it is artificially preserved to maintain exclusivity by those brands with a vested interest in the status quo e.g. Ivy League unis, OxBridge etc, and that tertiary education would need to adapt if secondary education decided to do things differently with regards to assessment. As you rightly ask, would the new metrics, desirable as they seem, still be gamed?


  2. Enjoyed that Damian, thank you. I certainly agree with your emphasis on well-being. Measuring or quantifying well-being levels in any reliable way is nigh on impossible. What are you envisaging when you mention longitudinal data?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Alan. In terms of longitudinal data, perhaps it just makes sense to have multiple insights into what we observe. At the moment we simply don’t have any data…but companies are using our data to make all sorts of predictions about our health, well-being, aspirations, and habits. For example, I read recently that a company was able to send pregnancy products to customers that only subsequently knew that they were pregnant through the use of an algorithm based on their demographics and shopping history…it makes me wonder whether it will one day be possible to ‘predict’ what health and mental health support some people might need based on x, y, or Z… we’re along way off!


  3. Fascinating blog post… I completely agree with your observation that higher education has been commodified (my parents were shocked at how expensive the sticker price of university fees are… compared with when they studied in the States 20-30 years ago, even accounting for inflation) I suppose the fundamental reason for this – the breakneck growth of international schools and the continually falling admissions rate at universities – is inevitable and not actually all that bad all things considered, which is the rising wealth of countries outside the developed world coveting a piece of “Western Higher Education.”

    I wonder… while there is certainly a lot of good that schools can do with improving the wellbeing of its students, away from such single-minded focus on academic results, whether that will address the underlying economic reality of fixed supply, more demand, increasing competition. Perhaps this is a structural problem that is far more intractable, one that may possibly begin to gradually self-correct as other attractive university destinations outside of North America and Western Europe begin to market itself more effectively to international students (and international schools may very well have a very important role to play in this as well).

    As someone who just has gone through the university application process, I completely agree that adopting any North-star as a focus may result in potential for abuse… for example, as almost all US universities use holistic admissions that look beyond academic results, e.g. a significant emphasis on extracurricular activities/ volunteering, I’ve heard from some of my peers of how needing to check off or stack up extracurricular and volunteering requirements detracts away from the sincerity, passion, contribution to wellbeing, and fun that is supposed to be what they should be really about…

    Liked by 1 person

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