Column: The Scarecrow didn’t get much

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In “The Wizard of Oz” movie, it’s easy to think that the Wizard, that lovable charlatan, has worked some real magic in the end.

The Tin Man gets his heart, the Cowardly Lion gets his courage, and the Scarecrow gets — well, what exactly does he get? A diploma awarding him an honorary Th.D. He’s now a Doctor of Thinkology, a certified deep-thinker. Shifting to thinker-mode, the Scarecrow immediately comes up with a brilliant mathematical insight: “The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side.”

He’s elated with his newly discovered talent, “Oh, joy. Rapture! I’ve got a brain!”

The first time one watches this scene (and, for the less mathematically inclined, maybe the first 10 times one watches the scene), it’s easy to miss something important. The Scarecrow’s enthusiasm, his fast-paced professorial delivery and his vaguely familiar mathematical jargon mask the fact that his “brilliant” insight is utter nonsense.

There are plenty of real-life advocates of Oz-like shortcuts to success. Among the most prominent: Sir Michael Barber, the one-time chief adviser on delivery to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and currently the chief education adviser to Pearson PLC, the London-based educational publishing giant.

Barbour was Blair’s government efficiency expert, a man whose top-down reforms were supposed to do everything from ensuring better health care to making the trains run on time. His current crusade is to reform education worldwide through a strategy he calls deliverology.

It’s the kind of philosophy that makes education bureaucrats giddy. Oh, joy. Rapture! I’ve got a strategy! But cut through the enthusiasm and the jargon, and what we’ve got is the same old outcome-based approach that never delivers on its rosy promises.

The deliverology management philosophy is simple: top-level types establish measurable target goals and then pressure those farther down the bureaucratic chain to deliver ever-improving results. Unfortunately, this trick can’t possibly work because of a phenomenon economists call Goodhart’s law: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Here’s an example. At one point, Barber’s top-level medical bureaucrats decided that reducing the time between asking for a medical appointment and the appointment itself was a high priority, with a two-day maximum wait.

Providers solved the problem neatly. If they couldn’t make the two-day limit, they asked patients to call back at a set time later — two days before the appointment could be arranged. The second call became the “official” call, enabling the provider to meet the bureaucratic efficiency standard while actually making medical service delivery less efficient and less user-friendly. And the official wait time numbers ended up so far from reality they became meaningless. Goodhart’s law at work!

This is what happens whenever top-down reformers insist on using “measurable outcomes,” as targets —especially in the education field. Data manipulation rather than real improvement becomes the focus.

In this regard, deliverology is virtually identical to the No Child Left Behind program — though it’s been packaged by an exceptionally persuasive Th.D.

Art Marmorstein, Aberdeen, is a professor of history at NSU. He can be reached at americannews@aberdeennews.com. The views are his and do not represent Northern State University.