It’s Inputs That Matter

One of my passions is economics.  Not just because I’m heavy into math, but because economics collects together under one umbrella the measures of both benefit and cost, demand and supply, output and input.

The recent Newsweek article that ranked Cheltenham high school among the top 1600 schools in America (that’s the top 6% for the math folks) is fascinating as an example of  just such an economic perspective and I can’t resist remarking on it.

It is the inputs to a process (a school, a factory, a family, a car, they’re all processes in action) that are one of the most critical parts of the process.  We’ve all probably heard the phrase “garbage in – garbage out”.  This is exactly the concept I’m talking about and exactly what the article measures, but in a positive way. 

You can read about their choice of a metric in their online discussion of how the rankings were done, but the Newsweek staff used as their key metric for quality the number of “Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge (AICE) tests given at a school each year.”  This is an input metric. Here it’s more-in/more-out.  Knowing that these advanced courses are good things just to participate in, regardless of grade received, “more in” also means “better out”.  “More in” means more students that are prepared for college level work.  And while measuring the value of that preparation is just too hard, we know that more is better.

As more evidence, Time Magazine also had an interesting article on almost the same topic.  Specifically, should we pay kids for certain behaviors.  They actually studied paying for both inputs and outputs, in this case for reading books or for good grades and found that it was the input metric that most correlated with improved student performance.  And why do we know this?  Reading is fundamental to nearly everything we do and good readers are efficient learners, hence the output of better performance will almost certainly be improved with better quality input provided with the incentive to improve the basic skill of reading.

Returning to the Newsweek article, if we want more students to graduate with college level experience and possibly with college level credits, we first need to increase the number of students taking these tougher courses.  Increased quality in terms of college-prepared students will come naturally from more students being exposed to college-level work.  We can never expect more prepared students out than we put in.

I applaud this metric as one that is both something we can actually and most directly effect, and it is a metric that will correlate well to increases in quality output.

Garbage-in/garbage-out is real and so is quality-in/quality-out.  I’m glad that Newsweek recognizes that schools like Cheltenham are working on improving the inputs because it’s the inputs that matter most.