Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Report Card on Report Cards

Why They Don't Always Measure Up
The run-up to the Obama administration's 100th day in office was truly a spectacle. It seemed that every media outlet had a countdown clock to April 29th and massed panels of experts to give the still new President a grade. The Report Card phenomenon has grown wildly in recent years. On the political side, a Google search of "President Obama Report Card" yielded 23,900,000 hits whereas "President Bush Report Card" produced 10,800,000. A crude yardstick, sure, but what makes this even more lopsided is that it took about three percent of the time (100 days vs. eight years) to double the number of hits.

We love to grade and that's fine by me. Measuring success is crucial -- in politics, business, health and medicine, sports, everywhere. There are some problems, however, and we need to ask a few important questions in order to place any grade in perspective:
  • Who is grading? We need to consider the source, and determine their qualifications and potential biases. The "experts" gave the President every grade from A to F.

  • What are the conditions? An honest appraisal of the environment is necessary in order to compensate for those issues and conditions that are beyond the control of the person being graded.

  • How are grades being assessed? The scale must be the same, applied and then evaluated in an identical manner to all in the sample population -- all of the politicians, restaurants, doctors, etc.

  • What are we measuring and how much weight should be assigned? The issues or subjects to be graded and for how much they count should be determined in advance. A post hoc analysis isn't fair or valid. In school, classes have levels and we multiply the grade by the number of credits. For news media consumption, this would get complicated. But some discussion of how outcomes are weighed should be attempted. Does reversing the ban on Federally-funded stem cell research count more, less or the same as closing the Guantanamo prison camp, filling Cabinet posts or passing the economic stimulus bill?

  • When is it time to grade? Like defining the measurement scales and methods of analysis, the grading timeline should be predetermined. We've seized upon the 100 day mark but, in Washington time, that's practically light speed -- probably not the best time to hand out a report card. Many pundits ended up giving the President an "incomplete" because so many initiatives were in progress (though it would have been more accurate to say, "it's just too early but here's what the trend looks like.").

In days leading to April 29th, the President's staff repeated the message that 100 days is just a number, it's arbitrary. But what did we see on that Wednesday night? The President took the prime time stage to grade himself. Rather than dismiss the inevitable, he saw an opportunity and leveraged the milestone. The President used his position to choose the parameters, select the subjects and weigh the outcomes. If nothing else, and no matter where you are along the political spectrum, that should get a high mark for public relations.

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