Numbers Never Tell the Whole Story

Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton was undeniably one of the NFL’s most talented individual players of all time.  His ability to generate yards despite the circumstances — to elude tacklers with deceptive speed and agility — made him nothing short of a legend.

While most remember Payton as the star back of the Bears at the height of their success — he rushed for 1,500 yards and 9 touchdowns in 1985, leading Chicago to their first title in 22 years — he also put up consistent numbers playing for really bad teams and in really tough conditions early in his career.

By the end of his 13-year career in the NFL, Payton had accounted for 21,000 yards from scrimmage.  He was chosen to 9 Pro Bowls, was named the NFL Player of the Year twice (1977 and 1985), and was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1993.  27 years later, he still holds Bears records for total rushing yards (16,726) and total rushing touchdowns (110).

But read Sweetness — a biography on the back written by Jeff Pearlman — and you’ll find out that Payton wasn’t exactly a team player.   

What caught me by surprise was that instead of running out of bounds late in games when the Bears were trailing by 3, Payton would often fight for extra yards to pad his individual stats.  While some fans saw his refusal to be tackled as evidence of a rugged determination to deliver punishment to defensive backs, his teammates saw it as a selfish act that cost Chicago victories.

Looking back, Payton’s 16,000 rushing yards are pretty darn impressive no matter who he was as a person.  But his “accomplishments” are harder to admire when you learn that his pursuit of yards over victories was often self-serving and costly to his peers.

The lesson to be learned:  Professions that celebrate numbers above all are inadvertently incentivizing the wrong behaviors. 

Like most professional athletes, Payton’s contracts weren’t tied to the number of victories that the Bears put up each year.  Instead, his contracts were tied to the individual numbers that he generated, regardless of the damage that he caused by pursuing those numbers.  Payton figured out that putting up 1,500 yards was the key to getting paid — even if putting up 1,500 yards meant making choices that hurt the overall health of the organization.

What does that same selfish behavior look like in education?

Teachers grinding through impossible curricula in hopes of covering content before end of grade exams, even when they know that stepping out of bounds and stopping the clock is the right choice for kids.  The end result:  Teachers with higher “value added scores” even though their students quickly forget everything that they’ve memorized in preparation for testing season.

Are these REALLY the kind of results — and instructional behaviors — that we want to reward?

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Related Radical Reads:

Is Standardized Testing Changing Me for the Worse?

How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year

Walking Moral Tightropes ISN’T a Reform Strategy

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  • Brian Ridpath

    District Statistics

    Most all district stats are are easy to affect and pad an administrators “accomplishments”. The most notorious stat today is ‘graduation rate’. It does not measure learning and is easily affected by the ‘credit recovery’ courses that exist today or by grades given for less than passing work. We spend so much time at my title one school making sure kids graduate that we forget about real learning and real accomplishment. I am sad to learn Walter Payton was known for the same behavior of stat padding.

  • MaggiePearce

    What are we really measuring?

    Most measurements of student performance today represent something arbitrary. We cannot truly assess learning using statistics alone. A district may have high test scores or graduation rates, but how can you measure the effectiveness and appropriateness of what the student is learning? You raise a great point here. Teachers often have to rely on their own experiences and observations to judge the worth of what their students are learning, rather than test results that can only tell us one aspect of student performance. 

  • ScottEDiamond

    Wonderful!

    The Payton story shocked me. I didn’t know that.

    I tweeted this post out (@scottediamond) it needs a wide audience.

    Scott