I told my long suffering boss last year that my SMART goal was to be the best teacher south of the Chathams. He rolled his eyes in his usual resigned fashion. He said I needed to get serious as having a SMART goal was now a requirement for all teachers*. Eventually we devised a mutually agreeable goal  which would be easily achieved and not expose my general incompetency in the classroom. It was a relief for both of us.

I loathe the modern mantra of management which entails the need for metrics to measure performance and ensure accountability. To prove your worth with a quantifiable measure.

I am certainly not a double G and T (God’s gift to teaching); nor am I a Figjam (f**k I’m good, just ask me). But I like to think that having taught for over a millennium I approach my chosen career with an element of self-motivated professionalism. I resent having an external body tell me I now need to set an annual SMART goal.  Particularly given I will be paid nothing extra if I achieve it. It reeks of the modern tyranny of metrics.

The term “metrics” has an odour of faux corporatism about it. A quick Google search reveals the use of this term has rocketed since the 1980s when neoliberalism reared its dubious head in many parts of the world. Metrics are part of the toolbox of modern managerialism. They provide the measure for performance and accountability and ultimately reward or punish in a market-based society.

But there is a very dubious side to an obsession with metrics as a managerial tool and measure of human performance. It is the law of unintended consequences. It plays out in a host of arenas from hospital waiting lists to NCEA results to crime clearance statistics.

The use of metrics to measure performance changes people’s behaviour, but not always in the desired fashion. People respond to incentives. If jobs or salary levels are on the line then people quickly find ways to game the metrics in their favour.

NCEA provides a fascinating illustration of this phenomenon. If teachers and schools are judged on the metric of their pass rates in NCEA there is an in-built incentive to inflate these figures. There is little doubt this has occurred in recent years to meet a government-imposed target pass rate at NCEA Level 2. Hospital waiting lists provide a further example. If DHBs are accountable based on waiting lists then there is an incentive for them to change the criteria for registering on a waiting list. Crime clearance rates for police is a further example. There is an incentive for police to under report crime statistics in order to increase clearance rates.

The previous government was eager to trumpet our rock star economy based on headline GDP growth figures. But the high levels of net migration meant that GDP or national income per person in this country was growing at a far slower rate than the total GDP figure bring quoted. The metrics used for economic growth have always been problematic since their inception in the 1930s. It is likely that China’s stellar growth rates in recent years are very dubious in their accuracy.

It will be interesting to observe if the current government tries to massage the metrics surrounding its Kiwibuild scheme. There is a lot of political credibility riding on it. An issue will arise if the number of new builds under Kiwibuild leads to a decline in private builds as resources are diverted. A further issue will be if the government buys new builds off private developers and tries to count them as part of Kiwibuild. Metric manipulation crosses all political bounds.

Lies, damned lies and statistics. We are living in the age of the corporate technocrat where the idea of scientific management in business and other spheres prevails. This may look good on paper. It may appear to promote efficiency and performance and accountability. What it often fails to recognise is that humans are wonderfully adaptive and respond quickly to incentives. The use of metrics alters human behaviour but not always as intended.

I am unsure what my future SMART goals will be as I near perfection as a teacher. I easily surpassed my SMART goal last year and it was a wondrous feeling. I am sure this annual goal-setting process will eventually allow me to achieve  perfection in my teaching if I apply myself and continue to reach for the stars.  I am thinking my goal this year will be more realistic. Maybe to be the best teacher south of Tokyo or possibly just Stewart Island.

*Editor’s note: The original version of this article implied that the Education Council manages appraisal of teaching staff and set goals. However, the Education Council informs us that it does not do that. It says, “Schools and centres manage appraisal of teaching staff and set goals. The Education Council does want to know they have a good appraisal process in place.” This article has been changed slightly so as not to mislead readers.

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