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Lower standards guarantee higher outcomes

Measurements are often given meaning relative to thresholds. Someone is housed or unhoused, poor or not poor, by some definition. Yet these thresholds are arbitrary, and open to debate and manipulation. While one might think there would be agreement on what homeless means, especially since it is a word that almost defines itself, there is considerable argument over its definition with significant policy consequences.

As the social sector struggles to measure its impact and make the case that real progress is being made, the LA Unified School District (LAUSD) might have found the easiest and most fool proof way of increasing graduation rates; lower graduation standards. The LAUSD is facing a dropout crisis, and like many social sector organizations, whether government or non-profit, is feeling the pressure to improve outcomes based on a set of measurable indicators. For schools, a fairly important indicator is graduating students.

Yet graduation is actually a proxy for being educated. While econometric models tend to find positive returns to education (more education more money) the diploma itself does not beget a wage increase. Instead, diplomas are a signal that a worker can perform at a certain level. Although lowering graduation requirements, in this case by potentially allowing students to graduate with fewer credits and lower grade point averages, will increase graduation rates, will it actually make students more educated? And what about those students who graduate under current LAUSD standards, might this proposal cause them harm by allowing students to take fewer classes or earn worse grades?

I’m no education expert, but I work with a range of organizations facing considerable pressure to move the needle on one metric or another. But this approach the LAUSD is considering could set a dangerous precedent for the social sector. If an employment agency wants to inflate employment statistics, it might conflate temp work with full time jobs. And if a homeless services organization wanted to show an improvement in housing placements, it might refuse to work with chronically homeless persons and only serve those whose homeless-spell would last a month regardless of interventions.

Is someone who is 101% of the poverty line not poor while someone who is 99% of the poverty line poor? Any anti-poverty organization worth its salt would want to help both of these people, regardless of an arbitrary line set by the federal government. We use thresholds to help describe what we mean by the objectives we aim to address. Lowering our standards and adjusting how we define measurement of our objectives is an easy way to inflate our outcomes, but it is not terribly satisfying and is in no way meaningful.

The LAUSD would be wise to focus its efforts on helping students achieve its vision of an educated youth population rather than lowering its standards to award diluted diplomas. The people we serve are more than binary variables that fail or succeed. Our outcomes metrics are only valuable if they help identifying where we truly succeed and fail. If instead we simply want high scores, then make up any number you want and call it a day.