Sunday, January 09, 2005

Results-based thinking

The Dec 6, 2004 issue of the New Yorker has an interesting article by Atul Gawande about ranking doctors:

The hardest question for anyone who takes responsibility for what he or she does is, What if I turn out to be average? ... I could tell myself, Someone's got to be average. If the bell curve is a fact, then so is the reality that most doctors are going to be average. There is no shame in being one of them, right?

Except, of course, there is. Somehow, what troubles people isnt so much being average as settling for it. Everyone knows that averageness is, for most of us, our fate. And in certain matters -- looks, money, tennis -- we would do well to accept this. But in your surgeon, your child's pediatrician, your police department, your local high school? When the stakes are our lives and the lives of our children, we expect averageness to be resisted. And so I push to make myself the best. If I'm not the best already, I believe wholeheartedly that I will be. And you expect that of me, too. Whatever the next round of numbers may say.

The first reaction anyone has when asked to submit to a rankings process is to ask what is being measured. Teachers hate having their pay tied to students' test performance because they know that tests don't measure everything. And we all know people who are good at manipulating a test system to their advantage by say, encouraging the "dumb" kids to stay home sick the day of the test.

But I think these problems do end up coming out in the wash. People with low SATs do worse in college, no matter how hard you dismiss the unfairness of the test.

Quantitative measurement is good, and you shouldn't be afraid of it. You and all your activities have results that can be ranked, and those rankings hold whether you look at them or not. At least if you know where you stand, you have some hope of improvement.

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