Performance measurement and social goals: Onoro O’Neil and The Wire

The next two weeks we are discussing Season 4 of the Wire, and one of the things I wanted students to notice throughout concerns how performance measurement is used as currency within the institutions, their employees, and their service populations. There are 2 important instances just in the first part of the season.

1) the “September day” scenes, when truant officers just pick up the kids who need their “September Day”…because funding organizations are counting whether a child was there in September and October for one day at least, so that, essentially, the truant staff and the kids have a vocabulary around meeting just that requirement, and no more, in attendance;

2) the Major Crimes Unit encountering the “new broom” captain who is obsessed with his statistics: all he cares about are checking boxes. He micromanages; he steps on the entrepreneurial, risk-taking, and successful detectives in major crimes and promises to change the focus of the department. And he does. This is a group that had been able to make long-term commitments to arresting and convicting Avon Barkdale.

Our discussions prompted one of my students to share this essay on a middle school cheating scandal from the New Yorker. There is so much here that will make you want to throw your computer in a fury, but this paragraph takes the cake:

Every fall, the district held a convocation ceremony, which was usually in the Georgia Dome, where the Atlanta Falcons play. Schools that met their performance targets were seated on the field, while schools that fell short were relegated to the bleachers. Teachers spoke nervously all year about whether they would “make the floor.” At Waller’s first convocation, in 2005, he was humiliated by his seat in the bleachers. “It’s almost like having leprosy in the Bible,” he told me. “No one wants to associate with failure.

How #@#$@# petty can you get? Really? You think the other teachers are going to get failure cooties or something, if they all sit together as a group with common goals? Grrrrrrrrrrr!

This discussion has got me asking my students: are we doing more harm than good with performance metrics in service provision? Philosopher Onora O’Neil has devoted quite some time on working on issues of trust and metrics, so I sent this around:

I love the idea of intelligent accountability.

It takes them awhile to get started. She hots up about 8 minutes in.