Book Club–“Weapons of Math Destruction”, part 2

I’m still here.  Again, I’ll point you to Bryan Alexander’s summary of Chapters 2 and 3, and just add some personal reflections on what the chapters meant to me.

Chapter 2 talks about the use of WMDs and their role in the 2008 financial meltdown, again using O’Neil’s time at D.E. Shaw as a personal reflection.  For a while her company wasn’t even worried as the start of the downturn happened, because they felt clever enough to survive and even profit off the downturn.  Eventually the giddiness wore off, though, and that’s about when she left the company.

I remember starting on a pretty big kitchen renovation just as the collapse was happening.  We decided to move ahead anyway; because we needed a new kitchen and we didn’t think the short-term effects of the downturn would affect us.  We were mostly right—the stock market and home values have both handsomely rebounded, especially in our area, and we were fine. I did think of when we were getting our initial mortgage though, and the loan agent telling us we could go up to a ridiculous percentage of our gross income in a monthly payment—the same levels that O’Neil suggests contributed to the economic crash as people were underwater on their houses, and could no longer afford their mortgage payments as they lost their jobs.  I felt like I was old school sticking to the classic ratios for mortgage debt, but that served us very well.

Chapter 3 talk about the college ratings game.  As a higher-ed administrator I’m fascinated by this, and have myself succumbed to looking at the rankings and being happy when my institution does well in them. I was also reminded of a previous university president I worked for who made a conscious decision to disavow the rankings.  Sure enough, our numbers dropped, and they have yet to recover under a new president who is taking a much more pragmatic view of the rankings, and is keeping an eye on them without sacrificing (we hope) the institution’s underlying principles.  The fact is that doing better in those rankings would help the institution greatly, and ironically fix most of its structural issues.

Compared with my current school which is riding high in the rankings (especially ones attempting to quantify social mobility).  I know how the place works, at least a bit at this point, and there are times I don’t know how we do it.  I also know my previous institution is still doing a great job at many things (teaching and learning for instance) and most of what has hurt its ratings are externalities that are proxy for the real things, as O’Neil describes.  So we need to be cognizant of that.

I also lament the failure of coming up with a new ranking system.  One idea I have would be to provide the raw data as much as possible; develop a system to let people weight things how they wish, and come up with custom rankings based on their criteria.  This doesn’t completely remove schools’ ability to game the system, but would provide for some transparency and the ability for people to see what’s important to them.  Still though we are confonted with the issue of only being able to model what we can model, and not being able to provide quantitative data for some of the most important student outcomes, like “did they learn” and “did they acquire the skills to be civically minded”?

The book remains incredibly interesting and thoughtful, and continues to provoke interesting thoughts, and even some great dinner conversations with my spouse and children. I want my children to understand that assumptions and biases creep in everywhere, and to question “computer models” that claim to be impartial.  I may even give the book to my 8th grader to read.

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Mike Richichi

I'm an inveterate geek who's somehow become a leader in higher education information technology. These are some of my thoughts.