What Counts — Or What Is Counted?
What Counts — Or What Is Counted?
Accountability — who could be against that? Policy decisions based on real data — isn't that crucial? Evaluating the success of government programs and private initiatives by their results — how else can we tell how well we're doing?
I want to know if my local school is doing its job, what shape my finances are in, if I'm doing what I need to do to maintain my health. I depend on test scores, sales figures, lab reports. Data guide my decisions, and I hope that they guide the agencies and organizations that surround me. And yet, the appeal of numbers is also a trap. Numbers can mislead. They distort. They're not the whole picture.
We think a lot about that at the Center for Ecoliteracy, where I work. We're committed to helping students understand the implications of the connections between individual "things" (plants, people, schools, watersheds, economies) and the larger systems in which they exist.
We talk about the shifts in perspective that "systems thinking" requires. One of these shifts is from depending so heavily on quantity to emphasizing quality as a standard for evaluating ideas, decisions, and actions. That can feel like one more academic abstraction. Its consequences, though, are concrete and profound. They're a reminder of what gets left out when we look for the magic numbers that will decide complex matters for us.
I've been reading two recent books that remind me of what's at stake. Leading historian of American education Diane Ravitch has written The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2009). Poet, philosopher, essayist, farmer, and deep thinker Wendell Berry's latest book is What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth (Counterpoint, 2010). Ravitch and Berry both point to the risks in making decisions based on single solutions and simple quantitative measures.
Ravitch served as an Assistant Secretary of Education in the George H.W. Bush administration. She began as an "excited and optimistic" advocate of the No Child Left Behind program when it was presented by George W. Bush: "Could there be a more fundamental responsibility of schools than to teach everyone basic skills?...I was not sympathetic to the anti-testing movement. I didn't see why anyone would object to an annual test of reading and mathematics."
Over the course of a half-dozen years, Ravitch reversed her position. She concluded that the program's prescriptions for fixing low-performing schools weren't working. Moreover, the standards for measuring success were themselves deeply flawed and dangerously misleading. They demanded that, by 2014, every student in every school become "proficient" in reading and math — a goal, she reports, that had never been reached by any state or nation. Teachers and administrators were threatened with punishment and schools made subject to closure as a result of scores on tests of unknown reliability.
"By holding teachers accountable only for test scores in reading and mathematics," she reports, citing research by Richard Rothstein, "schools pay less attention to students' health, physical education, civic knowledge, the arts, and enrichment activities. When faced with demands to satisfy a single measure, people strive to satisfy that measure but neglect the other, perhaps more important, goals of the organization."
States also game the system by lowering the bar for demonstrating satisfactory progress, reclassifying students as "disabled," restricting the admission of low-performing students or counseling them to transfer or drop out before the testing period. Ravitch compares the actions of some schools to those of New York cardiologists who stopped performing surgery on critically ill patients after the state began issuing report cards on mortality rates.
The most common ploy, says Ravitch, is investing millions of dollars in programs and materials that drill students in test-taking strategies at the expense of increasing their knowledge or useful skills: "Students' acquisition of skills and knowledge they need for further education and for the workplace is secondary.... This sort of fraud ignores the students' interests while promoting the interests of adults who take credit for nonexistent improvements."
In What Matters? Wendell Berry gathers new essays along with writings spanning the last quarter-century. "The 'environmental crisis,'" he writes, "has happened because the human household or economy is in conflict at almost every point with the household of nature. We have built our household on the assumption that the natural household is simple and can be simply used. We have assumed increasingly over the last five hundred years that nature is merely a supply of 'raw materials,' and that we may safely possess those materials merely by taking them. This taking, as our technical means have increased, has involved always less reverence or respect, less gratitude, less knowledge, and less skill."
This "gross oversimplification" is in part the product of the limitations of our ways for assigning value:
"If, in the human economy, a squash on the table is worth more than a squash in the field, and a squash in the field is worth more than a bushel of soil, that does not mean that food is more valuable than soil; it means simply that we do know how to value the soil. In its complexity and its potential longevity, the soil exceeds our comprehension; we do not know how to place a just market value on it, and we will never learn how. Its value is inestimable; we must value it, beyond any price we put on it, by respecting it."
An absolute division, he concludes, is made "between raw materials, to which, as such, we accord no respect at all, and finished products, which we respect only to the extent of their market value. A lot could be said about the quality of the 'finish' of these products, but the critical point here is that...value in the form of respect is withheld from the source, and value in the form of price is always determined by a future usability — nothing is valued for what it is.... But when nothing is valued for what it is, everything is destined to be wasted."
"Far from assigning an absolute value to things we absolutely need," writes Berry, "the financial system puts a price, though a highly variable price, on everything. We know from much experience that everything that is priced will sooner or later be sold.... When everything has a price, and price is made endlessly variable by an economy without a stable relation to necessity or to real goods, then everything is disconnected from history, knowledge, respect, and affection — from anything at all that might preserve it — and so is implicitly eligible to be ruined."
Neither Ravitch nor Berry argues that we should not make decisions based on value. We ought, though, strive to be the masters rather than the subjects of our assessment tools, to require that our instruments measure what matters most rather than what is most easily counted, and to remember that less easily quantifiable qualities — community, reverence, respect, health, and affection among them — may be those most critical to our lives and futures.
A slightly different version of this essay appeared first in Education Week, where you can read EdWeek readers' comments.
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