Monday, September 23, 2013

The Ducky and the Boat

When The Boy was in his terrible twos, getting him to comply with the most basic requests was often a battle.  By accident, I discovered that giving him some sense of choice made things much easier.  Framing bathtime around “do you want the ducky or the boat?” made getting him in the tub much less of a struggle.  I didn’t care whether he chose the ducky or the boat; I just wanted him in the tub.  The trick was in setting up the choices so that either choice was the “right” choice in a larger sense.

To understand “choice” as a policy instrument requires understanding the entire context.  Decisions are made with the information at hand, among the options perceived at the time.  There’s tremendous power in framing the options, but getting the framing wrong won’t lead anywhere good.  And sometimes the choosers will act differently than the framer anticipated.

I thought about the ducky and the boat in reading these two pieces next to each other.  The first is about Florida’s decision to let students decide for themselves whether they need remedial help or not when they sign up for classes.  The second is about performance-based funding for public colleges, and ways to make colleges toe the line by using funding as an incentive.  Both suggest a serious lack of reflection on the part of the people constructing choices.

The Florida case is the more egregious of the two.  In that case, colleges that may be held accountable for their performance are being told to let entering students decide whether or not they need remedial help.  The idea is to cut down on unnecessary coursework, the better to speed students through.

But “unnecessary” is a big word.  Social psychology tells us that the most ignorant are often the worst judges of their own skill, since they’re so lost that they don’t even understand the criteria.  In other words, some of the students who most need the extra help won’t know it, at least at first.  (The Boy was often quite sure he didn’t need a bath, no matter how strongly the visual and olfactory evidence suggested otherwise.)  The “worried well,” on the other hand, may take more than they need.  

In this case, what looks at first like “freedom” is actually something closer to “abandonment.”  The students who are most likely to fail are being left to their own devices.  Some will lack the frame of reference to make a good decision.  For the ones who are most lost, the greatest need isn’t “freedom” as much as “legibility.”  They need the kind of clear pathway that can inspire justified confidence that they can actually get somewhere.  Without that, they’ll founder.

In the context of performance-based funding, their colleges may well founder, too.  At the exact same moment that some students are being told to figure out their skill levels for themselves, colleges are being held responsible for the consequences of those choices.  

The second article addresses lessons learned about various state-level performance funding plans over the years.  Three jumped out at me: performance-based funding should be phased in gradually, it should be based on a “stable, significant funding stream,” and it should recognize relevant differences between sectors.  Only when the background conditions are correct -- only when colleges are choosing between the ducky and the boat, rather than between the ducky and skipping the bath altogether -- will the systems work.  Make the ‘performance’ component of funding too small, and colleges can ignore it.  Make it too large and mercurial, and colleges will endure tremendous deadweight costs from a stop-start series of crises and an inability to make plans stick.  Make it one size fits all, and institutions doing great work in difficult settings will be eviscerated.

There’s no necessarily or theoretical conflict between a stable and significant funding system and a performance-based system, but their timeframes often clash.  Most of the performance-based proposals I’ve seen work one year at a time.  But the kinds of interventions that make significant and sustainable differences take several years to work.  And when state budgets (and governments) go through up-down or left-right cycles in that time, it can be difficult to protect innovations long enough for them to mature.  The political appeal of “performance” is that it looks “tough,” but “tough” and “patient” tend not to go together in our politics.  That’s a major hole in our culture, but there it is.

Yes, colleges pay attention to the strings attached to dollars.  (Anyone who has worked with grants can attest to that.)  But if you want the right results, you have to set up the conditions of choice and then allow time for the choices to bear fruit.  Otherwise, you’ll wind up rewarding either unsustainable boutique projects or random statistical fluctuations, and you’ll starve out good ideas before they can prove themselves.

The parable of the ducky and the boat isn’t really about the choice between the ducky and the boat.  It’s about everything that comes before that choice, and that surrounds it.  Get the context wrong, and nothing will get clean.