Stop Chasing the F%$&ing Numbers!

Graduation rates, market coverage rates, rate of return, RBIs, batting averages, the Dow Jones or S&P Index, bestseller lists, consumer ratings, ACT , SAT, other school test scores…  We’ve gotten to the point in American society where numbers seem to define everything – especially success.  And if you can’t quantify it, then either it’s not worth doing… or there’s something wrong with your analysis and understanding.

I’ve seen article after article talking about the need to increase retention and graduation rates in education, both from high school and from college.  I can’t recall a single one emphasizing the need to improve students’ ability to think, to write and speak coherently, and to complete tasks well and on time.  The emphasis is all on the numbers – how many and what percentage graduate and with what degrees.  My wife has taught at the same university for twenty years, and today, if one looks at test scores, the students are far brighter than those of twenty years ago.  Yet twenty years ago, students who could not write a coherent essay were a small minority; today, those who can are the minority.

Today’s students cannot only not remember facts critical to their field for more than a few days, but even when given those facts, most cannot create a logical structure with them.  But the numbers say they’re brighter.  So do their grades, as a result of rampant grade inflation, another effect of “numbers” emphasis. Yet regardless of what the numbers say, more practical evaluations indicate that that basic measures of education, like thinking, reading, writing, retaining knowledge and being able to use it effectively, are actually declining. But what’s happening in education is symptomatic of an illness that pervades all of society.

Look at business.  Companies are graded almost exclusively on the numbers, to the point that if a company’s reported earnings drop a few pennies per share for one quarter, the stock price may drop dollars.  And those same companies pursue profits to the extreme, often taking enormous risks to add a few percentage points to their rate of return, even when those rates of return, as in the case of hedge funds and investment banks, were among the highest in finance and industry.  Those “numbers” weren’t enough, and those oh-so-brilliant business types pushed for higher numbers… and crashed the economy.

In sports, athletes are paid on their numbers, and the sports sections are filled with tables and stories dealing with those numbers.  Is it any wonder that there are doping scandals, when only a few percentage points, or seconds, or some other numerical differential that is comparatively small, equates to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars’ difference in compensation?

As a not-quite-side note, what I also find amazing is that for all this emphasis on numbers, the vast majority of people who emphasize them don’t know what they mean or even whether they’re relevant, not to mention the fact that millions if not billions of dollars are spent, or cut from spending, based on projections of future numbers, projections that are almost always revised and often far too optimistic.

Rate-of- return, return-on-investment – those can mean anything, depending on how the underlying figures are juggled.  Which is more accurate, ROI based on the cash value of the investment at the time it was made… or the present value of that investment, and if it’s the present value, which of a half dozen measures of inflation are you using to determine it?  What does an increased rate of high school graduation mean when the students who are graduating have a lower rate of reading comprehension and mathematical understanding [NOT test scores on those subjects]?  Does it mean that nothing has changed, except that more students have a piece of paper?

The problem with chasing numbers is that the numbers become more important than what they’re supposed to measure. Years ago, I came across an analysis of the results of a college degree, and one of the surprising results, at least to the analysts, was that the college or university from which one graduated was far more predictive of future success than was class ranking.  Likewise, the early and even the present studies of the value of a college degree are missing the point. When the first studies in this area were made, college graduates were in fact a small percentage of the population and an academic and social elite. That these graduates made more money over a lifetime had less to do with their having a piece of paper than their having mastered the range of skills necessary to obtain that piece of paper… and the study about which college trumping comparative class rank actually supports that point of view.  Elite colleges require elite students and demand they achieve more, so much so in some cases that students in the lower levels of an Ivy League-level school may well learn more than all but the very, very few in the majority of state universities.

Test scores don’t measure those differences well, because tests have gotten better and better at measuring innate intelligence, rather than applied intelligence… and it’s applied intelligence in the end that determines success, just as it’s the effectiveness of applied capital and personnel that determines corporate success over time, not this quarter’s or this year’s accountant-adjusted profits.

The best “numbers” usually go to the best statistical liars, and it’s well past time to get back to looking at the qualities and quality [or the lack of it] that the numbers are so good at distorting… or not measuring at all.


16 thoughts on “Stop Chasing the F%$&ing Numbers!”

  1. Elizabeth A. Mancz says:

    I wish that the various state governments that are making funding dependent on graduation and course completion rates would read this. And it should be required reading for Congress. I have taught for 28 years and I see the same things you see in students. My students today are just as bright as my students of 28 years ago – but their education has failed them. I am considered old fashioned by some of my colleagues because I require the same standards as I did 20 years ago, and I don’t chase after fads in education. Sometimes I feel like the kid with his finger in the dike.

  2. Bob Walters says:

    In many places students are not encouraged to question and are not taught to analyze. This has been going on for a long time. Some states have gone so far as to discourage critical thinking in K-12. This is how we end up with large numbers of people admiring Ronald Reagan.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      As opposed to what…the deep thinkers that voted for our current incompetent-in-chief? You’ve got to be kidding…

  3. Postagoras says:

    The problem is not the numbers, the problem is human nature. As in your previous post about business metrics like ROI, people seek ways to measure success. It’s fashionable now to come up with numeric standards from “big data” accumulated digitally. But in all cases, the agreed-upon standards slowly get manipulated by interested parties that skew the standards their way.

    So it’s not just the numbers that are the issue, it’s the worst part of human nature degrading any and all measures of success.

    In the cases where immense sums of money are involved, it’s a fool’s game to depend on any standards these days. Much of the anger expressed by regular folks on the right and left in the United States can be ascribed to a sense that the game is rigged. That people can score big by joining the amoral collusion which exists beyond the capability of regulation. As the mortgage brokers said while they were making bad loans, “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.” There are no consequences, just “consequence theater”.

  4. Bob Walters says:

    I pretty much settle for thinking rather than just reacting. Just like I would settle for knowledge rather than ignorance. What would really make me happy though is if we got Civic Virtue instead of selfish greed and fear.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      Civic virtue, or any other virtue, is a wonderful thing.

      But it isn’t virtue if it’s imposed by the force of law. It’s just theft of resources and liberty.

      And greed isn’t always a vice, if merely moderated by a bit of enlightened self-interest. Spend part of the advertising budget on some community support function maybe…better advertising without fattening the folks on Madison Avenue, who don’t exactly add value in the usual sense (not that I want them banned or taxed or anything).

      But again, if it’s not voluntary, it isn’t virtue.

      Compassion can not be legislated, and ultimately NO virtue is a a property of a collective, but ultimately only of individuals in free and voluntary association. A collective’s primary interest, notwithstanding any nominal mission statement, is the preservation of the organization and the advancement of the ambitious within it. Any other accomplishments of any collective larger than can have each individual member hold each other personally responsible, is purely incidental.

      Groups are just mobs that haven’t necessarily turned vicious yet.

      And I don’t trust anyone that I don’t know…simply based on lack of information. As far as I’m concerned, there is no benefit of the doubt – trust is earned, or it doesn’t exist.

      1. Bob Walters says:

        I disagree, enlightened self-interest is an oxymoron. Ayn Rand’s philosophy takes sociopathy and makes it into a political theory. And while Civic Virtue can not be legislated the total lack of it can be recognized especially when it is accompanied by whining about high taxes when we have the lowest taxes in decades.

        1. R. Hamilton says:

          Has it been tried recently, in a developed country, to put freedom ahead of providing services?

          I would tax everyone at one flat rate for everything. I don’t care if a few hundred bucks a year is a terrible burden on those who are already near the edge – I WANT them to be motivated to improve themselves or die, and to be completely unable to take it for granted that “society” (i.e. a large number of individuals more or less passively accepting being robbed by collectivism) will meet their needs.

          Our parasite-in-chief likes the expression “skin in the game”. The rich and middle class have plenty in the game, and the poor just sit there expecting more (medical care? CELL phones? WTF?). Leave them to private compassion, which will quickly select those who are doing their best (which may not be all that great, that’s understood) and leave to the tender mercies of nature (predators, scavengers, and worms) those that aren’t.

          Private assistance to someone that will make the best of it is 180 degrees opposite from subsidizing LOSERS to the detriment of the entire species.

          1. Bob Walters says:

            I was actually referring to infrastructure support not social programs. Why do you immediately assume I am referring to non-existing Obama give-aways?

  5. ConstableBob says:

    A more disturbing example of how people react to numbers: The London Metropolitan police was required to reduce the number of rapes on the streets of London. A number of departments did so by convincing rape victims in their areas of responsibility not to report the crimes. The result was more rapes that were only uncovered when a serial rapist started murdering his victims.

    The problem is not the numbers, it’s how people treat them.

  6. Muehe says:

    I agree with Mr. Modesitt rant about society / numbers. But I can not help but think. Why do we rely so heavily on numbers? And after spending a couple of minutes thinking about it, I think the reliance on numbers came about for 2 reasons: Easy to understand and they convey an image of impartiality.

    So what alternatives exists that convey simplicity and impartiality?

    I say convey, because numbers are not really simple nor do they have to be impartial.

    And saying going back to the “good old days” is not realistic. Obviously society found fault with the old way. My guess, Society was “protecting” us from some bad apples. The fact that the solution probably hurt us more than problem never even occurred. (Protected some, hurt all (sop))

    Image over reality – it is so easy to be lazy and take the image (I do).

  7. Steve says:

    As groups become larger and the teacher/manager/boss is no longer familiar with the individual, it is necessary to evaluate on a scale. Evaluation must be uniform and measurable. We all want to be “better”, but how do you measure that? People will always learn how to score well on any evaluation system used, in essence “gaming the system”.

    I would be interested in what solutions you might have for fighting grade inflation, not graduating incompetence, and not rewarding business or political shortsightedness. You have written on these topics repeatedly. I agree with you. I would be interested to read what you feel the solutions might be.

  8. I could — and have, in a way — write books about the solutions, but the most basic point/solution is for society, and all those in it, or at least a majority, to look at matters more honestly. Not all people have equal ability; not all children are bright, and some cannot or will not ever achieve mastery of certain skills because they do not have innate abilities to do so. As I just noted, the price of something is not its “worth”… and yet most people will not honestly face that in the sense of being willing to pay for worth and refusing to pay “prices” that are not worth their value. The solutions don’t lie in a another mechanism, another gimmick or gadget… and yet that is what we continually pursue… and the pursuit of numbers is just another symptom of that.

  9. R. Hamilton says:

    “infrastructure support”

    What’s wrong with toll roads or fuel taxes and similar that are absolutely restricted to only being used for the intended purpose? Except of course that EVERY source of government income gets diverted to whatever will get the contemptible vermin with delusions of adequacy re-elected to rape the taxpayer once again.

    Otherwise, “infrastructure support” is just a codeword for union subsidies – which is about as useful as giving a bum a bottle of cheap whiskey, except of course that unions offer kickbacks and/or political support to those that pander to them.

    1. Bob Walters says:

      I suspect “contemptible vermin” a perhaps more likely to occur in the private sector than they are in the public sector. Another of Ronald Reagan’s legacies is the demonetization of unions and government workers. Extremism always needs an enemy as a scapegoat. I suspect you would be right there with Max Blanck and Isaac Harris.

  10. Wine Guy says:

    The best way to avoid grade inflation is to let totally uninterested parties with proper knowledge do the grading: if a college course (or HS class) had its papers graded by a completely different person, separate from the prof/instructor/teacher who had no monetary attachment to the learning institution, then I would submit that the grade would be more objective. Yes, it’s clunky and would be expensive and time consuming. I suspect that’s only one of the reasons it is not being done.

    Public oral examinations are another option.

    Yet another way to get around grade inflation is standardized testing. People hate the MCAT, GRE, LSAT, etc. for a variety of reasons, but it is extremely hard to fake your way into a good score on these tests.

    And people like numbers, so they chase them. They can spout data and statistics without knowing what they really mean because unlike some other facts, numbers CAN be manipulated in a vacuum.

    And finally, people who say they ‘only look rationally at the numbers’ lie: whether we believe it or not, my take on decision-making is that most people go with their gut and then find the facts/numbers to support the decision afterwards.

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