Metrics and Matrics

Education is key to the future growth of South Africa. However, when compared to other emerging markets, South Africa performed well in most indicators, but education, labour and innovation were pointed out as areas of poor performance. This makes Angie Motshekga‘s recent NSC (National Senior Certificate) 2013 report all the more disappointing, because as many people have written, the published results hide the real issues and this fails the youth.

But what is more disappointing than the results (like the over 50% dropout from Grade 1 to Matric) is the press coverage of the published results. Like the technical report released, journalists  stick to reporting on the results, and somehow seem to think that they have done the country a service by ‘exposing’ the poor performance. But all it results in is a lot of noise and very little productive discussion or accountability. Let’s face it, the Matric results are at the end of 12 years of schooling and tell us very little. They are what Eric Ries terms “Vanity Metrics” and to borrow a definition “Vanity Metrics: Good for feeling awesome, bad for action”. I would argue then that the matric results will only become valuable when compared with metrics associated with the inputs during those 12 years.

The key inputs can be described as; Grade 1 entrants (And their Grade 6 and 9 future-selves), Teaching, the Learning Infrastructure and the Governance of the system. Strangely enough, when we look at the Department of Basic Education’s Annual Report, we find a table (below) that has strategic goals for all of those inputs.

DBE Strategic Goals

But this wasn’t in the Technical Report, so can we really blame the press?…

So now we have a base to work off, the matric results now have become valuable, because we can see how they have progressed since starting Grade 1 in 2002, relative to the improvements in the other inputs. Then we can all start having productive conversations.

But what comes next?

Well, constant review and improvement of the metrics associated with the inputs and results and this is where the press will become productive and the Department of Basic Education will be held accountable for the improvement of the inputs, not the possible random variations in the results at the end of a 12 year system.

And there should be improvements to the metrics, for example, according to a McKinsey report, the most effective ways to improve an education system is through its instruction; Through the quality of the students entering the teaching profession, through quality training of teachers and ensuring all students have access to quality teachers. So let us start measuring those items for the “Teaching” input. So item 1.1 in the table above needs to be expanded from “Improve teacher capacity and practices”.

With this honest reporting and accountability, we may also find a proliferation of highly impactful not-for-profits as they will have a better idea where the education system needs the most help. A few NPO’s already addressing key areas are;

Numeric – A not-for-profit who have leveraged Khan Academy resources to creatively deliver better Math education to low-bandwidth areas. Learn more about it here

Partners for Possibility – Links principals with business leaders to empower principals, thereby improving school leadership and governance.

But no one, not even the Department itself will be able to achieve real impact without good data, the right metrics and the public availability of information to improve transparency and accountability, so hopefully next year when the results are released they won’t just contain vanity metrics, but maybe also a few actionable metrics for the press and public to chew on.