Measures, Targets, and Goodhart’s Law

Tis the season to be tardy, fa-la-la-la-la…la-la-la-la!

I’m reasonably jolly, too, but this week seems just a little bit rushed. Nonetheless, ya’ll deserve something decent from Delicious Ambiguity this week, so I’m going to put forth my best effort.

I stumbled across an older adage last weekend that seems remarkably apropos given my recent posts about retention rates at Augustana. This phrase is most often called “Goodhart’s Law,” although the concept has popped up in a number of different disciplines over the last century or so.

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

You can brush up on a quick summary of this little nugget on Wikipedia here, but if you want to have more fun I suggest that you take the time to plunge yourself into this academic paper on the origin of the idea and its subsequent applications here.

Although Goodhart’s Law emerges in the context of auditing monetary policy, there are more than a few well-written examples of its application to higher ed. Jon Boekenstedt at DePaul University lays out a couple of great examples here that we still see in the world of college admissions.  In all of the instances where Goodhart’s Law has produced almost absurd results (hilarious if they weren’t so often true), the take away is the same. Choosing a metric (a simple outcome) to judge the performance (a complex process) of an organization sets in motion behaviors by individuals within that organization that will inevitably play to the outcome (the metric) rather than the performance (the process) and, as a result, corrupt the process that was supposed to lead to that outcome.

So when we talk about retention rates, let’s remember that retention rates are a proxy for the thing we are actually trying to achieve.  We are trying to achieve student success for all students who enroll at Augustana College, and we’ve chosen to believe that if students return for their second year, then they are succeeding.

But we know that life is a lot more complicated than that. And scholars of organizational effectiveness note that organizations are less likely to fall into the Goodhart’s Law trap if they identify measures that focus on underlying processes that lead to an outcome (one good paper on this idea is here). So, even though we shouldn’t toss retention rates onto the trash heap, we are much more likely to truly accomplish our institutional mission if we focus on tracking the processes that lead to student success; processes that are also, more often than not, likely to lead to student retention.

Make it a good holiday break,

Mark

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