Education Opinion

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

By Justin Baeder — April 12, 2011 1 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print


The project triangle, often posted in offices, sends a clear message to people who want it all:

Image Pick two.

In other words, you can’t always get what you want—not all of it, at least.

I’m reading a chapter from a rather strange 1977 book entitled The Politics of Expertise, which explores the political dimensions of doing policy work such as program planning and evaluation. The author, Guy Benveniste, goes even farther than the project triangle:

It is not possible to optimize if more than one desirable outcome is specified. In other words, if the system has several goals, optimization can be achieved in relation to any one of them. The other goals can be treated as constraints that have to be met, but the "best" solution optimizes only the principal goal. p. 87

Perhaps this explains the current (perpetual?) tumult in education reform: We want it all, and we want it all to be optimal. We want the best education system in the world, and we want to “do more with less.” We want to attract and retain better teachers, and we want to micromanage them and pay them less. We want rich and engaging curriculum, and we want schools to demonstrate their worth through curriculum-narrowing standardized tests.

Worse still, Benveniste explains, politicians don’t really want to set explicit goals, because once a promise is made, the political payoff fades away, and all that remains is the unrewarding work of actually fulfilling the promise:

Any political commodity that can be exchanged is most valuable at the time it is offered. As long as goals are secret, it is possible for competing groups to pursue their own ends without necessarily appearing to encroach on each other. This uneasy coexistence is shattered when the analyst asks for a detailed specification of priorities among objectives. p. 82, 85

When we become very clear about what we want in education, perhaps we can collectively put our backs into achieving that goal.

The opinions expressed in On Performance are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.