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Theory: Conceptual Issues

The selection of indicators is not a straightforward matter. Indicators come in a wide variety of forms. Borrowing heavily from Cobb and Rixford (Ibid.), indicators can be distinguished and defined on a number of axes: inductive or deductive; “pseudo-objective” or “partisan”; descriptive or prescriptive; “local” or national; broad or narrow; and indirect or direct. The choice of indicator is inescapably connected to the purpose of the indicator—this is why they can only even be “pseudo” objective. Indicators of progress toward greater social mobility ought to be deductive (based on a clear theory about what promotes and predicts mobility); as objective as possible; prescriptive (intended to guide policy); narrow (provide as much focus as possible); and direct (getting as close as possible to the causal connection to mobility). But in terms of the choice between national and subnational indicators, the answer can legitimately be “both.” Many leading indicators may work in most localities. But especially in a nation as large and diverse as the U.S., there may be some localities in which a particular indicator is more powerful than elsewhere.

In their review of the role of indicators, Cobb and Rixford (Ibid.) offer a number of important lessons, of which I would highlight the following:

(a) A clear conceptual basis is needed for indicators—otherwise you end up with a forest of numbers but no path;

(b) A number is not necessarily a good indicator—just because a number is available does not mean it is “getting at” the trend or factor you are interested in;

(c) There is no such thing as a “value-free” indicator—the simple selection of a particular indicator is a value judgment. It is better to be clear and upfront about the purpose of the indicator;

(d) Comprehensiveness is the enemy of effectiveness—five strong indicators are better than 105 indicators in terms of focusing political energy; and

(e) Indicators should attempt to reveal causes, not symptoms—especially in terms of promoting social mobility, indicators that get close to causal relationships are the most valuable.

Indicators and the U.K.'s Social Mobility Strategy

I served in the U.K. Coalition Government from 2010 to 2012, as Director of Strategy to the Deputy Prime Minister, who was leader of the junior party, the Liberal Democrats. At the time, Prime Minister David Cameron was in favor of what he had labeled the “big society”—a deliberate contrast to both the idea of the “big state” and Margaret Thatcher's claim that there “is no such thing as society.” But Cameron and his team refused to define their term clearly or apply any metrics. So my questions to them were always along the following lines: “How will you know when society is bigger? How big is it now? What are your measures?” In the end they stopped inviting me to the meetings. But the truth is they had no way to answer the questions. The “big society” was just a rhetorical device.

Of course “opportunity” is at least as nebulous a term as “big society.” But when the U.K. government made a strong commitment to promoting social mobility as its overarching social policy goal, that commitment was buttressed by indicators and institutions. In April 2011, the U.K. government issued a social mobility strategy, declaring: “A fair society is an open society, one in which every individual is free to succeed. That is why improving social mobility is the principal goal of the Government's social policy” (Cabinet Office, HM Government 2012, 5).

The definition of social mobility guiding the U.K. efforts is fairly tight, with a declared focus on intergenerational relative mobility by both income and occupation. Deciding on this definition was a vitally important step, laying the foundations for the selection of key “leading indicators” that are—based on the best available evidence—predictive of long-term trends in mobility. These indicators are shown in Table 13.1 and include income gaps in low birth weight, school readiness, educational attainment at ages 11, 16, and 19, postsecondary education, access to the professions, and early-career wage progression. An independent analysis of the indicators suggests that together they should capture more than half of the likely trends in intergenerational mobility (Gregg et al. 2014). The U.K. government also took steps to institutionalize the social mobility commitment with the creation of a Cabinet committee and a new, independent statutory Commission on Social Mobility and Child Poverty that reports annually to Parliament and the administration.

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