Goodhart's Law

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

It was my first semester at the University of Michigan. I was walking towards the student center when I went to call my mom about some good news. I had recently designed a medical device in my first engineering class that could potentially solve a significant problem for the field of orthopedics. I submitted the idea for a grant to fund further prototype development and had just found out that I had been awarded the grant funding. 18 year old me could not have been more excited to see my academic education create something of real value. I was no longer living in the seemingly theoretical world of the classroom. However, when I went to tell my mom this amazing news, her first response was, “But what grade did you get in the class?” Although the question was well intentioned, the response seemed to completely miss the mark. When did something with no inherent value in itself become more prized than something with actual value to the world? More so, what was a better measure of my success in the course: the grade or the solution to a problem that came from applying principles learned in the course?

Unfortunately, this situation has become a defining hurdle I have faced at every step in my academic training. While I have loved the breadth of my educational path; having had the opportunity to take classes from graduate mathematics classes to the finance of private equity to my clinical rotations as a medical student, I have found myself in constant tension between performing as high academically as possible and translating the knowledge from the classroom to the real world. Even in my undergraduate years, I knew I needed to maintain a high GPA along with a high MCAT score if I wanted to go to medical school. I remember as a junior in college, I wanted to pursue a minor in mathematics to learn how to apply computational methods to engineering problems I was working on at the time. When I went to talk to my advisors or friends, I received pushback that graduate level mathematics courses could lower my science GPA and hurt my medical school application. This was rather frustrating as I thought to myself, this could not have been what the founders of academic institutions imagined when they created them. Why did I feel that trying to conform to these standards of academic performance was limiting me intellectually? The way the system values academic performance in the form of grades and standardized testing, has turned education into a game that is to be won and not paths to be explored. Risk is to be avoided and exploitation is far more encouraged over exploration.

I am not advocating the removal of all standardized metrics of academic performance but rather repurposing them. I would like to think the motivation behind assessment and measurement of students should be with the goal to improve education. If we want to provide a high-quality education, we should also be able to assess whether we are truly relaying understanding in our students. It is not practical to wait for a student to use their education for its ultimate purpose before we can evaluate the efficacy of our educational systems. Unfortunately, by hyper-focusing on performance on these standardized measures, we change the focus of education from learning, growth, and providing a safe space for failure, to a game that must be won to advance one’s career. According to Goodhart’s law, the measure has become the target, and thus not only ceases to be a good measure but becomes harmful to those aiming to optimize for that objective irregardless of the cost. It is no wonder a vast number of college graduates feel their degrees are worthless and the knowledge learned during their college years have had surprisingly little use in their careers. Once again, while there is no inherent value in a degree, it carries greater currency and value than the real skills obtained during the acquisition of that degree. As we place more value on being super performers and incentivize students with these current motivators, we unintentionally and without knowing, devalue the education that we are trying to provide. Education is the set of knowledge and skills that we eventually use to solve problems we encounter outside of the classroom. Instead, students are incentivized to cultivate skills to maximize academic performance rather than honing these skills for ultimate use in the real world. An extreme example of this is how the first part of the medical license exams (USMLE Step 1) carries an enormous weight in how residency programs determine competitive prospective resident physicians. The weight this exam has come to carry is so heavy that students who are paying expensive medical school tuition are disengaging from the medical curriculum at their schools and instead focusing on educational materials that “teach to the test.” The focus is no longer advancing their clinical knowledge and skills that will help them in their upcoming clinical years but rather all focus and attention is dedicated to scoring as highly as possible on a standardized licensing exam. Countless hours are spent committing to memory clinically irrelevant facts that are “high yield” for the exam rather than investing the time into meaningful learning experiences that will carry far further than this multiple choice exam. Furthermore, exams such as the USMLE Step 1 are becoming outdated as brute force memorization is becoming a less valuable and useful skill in the modern information age. The internet has democratized information and thus, it is not the ability to regurgitate facts that is valuable but rather, being able to interpret and act on that information.

I by no means have the background or training to create educational reform, and whether this is even possible, I am not sure. However, I hope that with this reflection, I can change how someone who is just starting college or graduate school will view and use their education. While there is no escaping standardized measures of academic performance, one can make the conscious effort during their educational years to not turn the measure into the target but rather, enrich their experience as much as possible with the goal of getting every last drop out of their education, and remembering its ultimate purpose and goal. Take that difficult class that you may struggle with; you will grow in that struggle. Taking a class in entrepreneurship? Go start or join a start-up. Take risks. Seek discomfort. Grow. I assure you these seeds you plant today may take time to grow, but when they do, they will serve you for the rest of your life. Education in itself has no value. It is merely a tool. Its power is only realized in the person that yields it. I hope, if you have read this far, that you use the amazing opportunity of formal education to create a tool that will serve you for years to come.