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Federal Opinion

What Counts, or What Is Counted?

By Michael K. Stone — July 22, 2010 5 min read
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Accountability—who could be against that? Basing policy on real data—isn’t that crucial? Evaluating government programs and private initiatives by their results—how else? Teaching students to draw conclusions from facts, figures, and research—that’s part of our job as educators, isn’t it?

I want to know if my school is doing its job, the shape the economy and my finances are in, how humans are affecting the environment, if I’m doing what I should 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 around me. And yet, the appeal of numbers can also be a trap. Numbers inform; they also distort. They’re not the whole picture.

We think a lot about that at the organization where I work, the Center for Ecoliteracy. That’s probably because 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 emphasis on quantity to quality as a standard for evaluating ideas, decisions, and actions. That can feel like an academic abstraction. Its consequences, though, are concrete and profound. We need to ask what gets left out when we look for the magic numbers that will decide complex matters for us.

Recent writing by thinkers in very different arenas reminds me what’s at stake. In her recent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Diane Ravitch documents the cascading effects of measuring the effectiveness of teachers and schools by scores on narrowly focused tests. Meanwhile, the latest book by the poet, philosopher, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry, What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth, examines the fallout from single solutions and simple quantitative assessments in areas ranging from agriculture to economics to the environment.

Numbers inform; they also distort. They’re not the whole picture.

Ravitch reminds us that she began as an “excited and optimistic” advocate of the federal No Child Left Behind Act: “Could there be a more fundamental responsibility of schools than to teach everyone basic skills?” she asks. “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, she reversed her position after concluding that the program’s prescriptions for fixing low-performing schools weren’t working. Moreover, she adds: “By holding teachers accountable only for test scores in reading and mathematics, … 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.”

Ravitch argues that concentrating on simple numerical scores encourages states to game the system by lowering the bar for satisfactory progress, reclassifying students as “disabled,” restricting the admission of low-performing students, or counseling them to transfer or drop out. Millions of dollars and hours are invested in drilling students in test-taking strategies, while skills and knowledge needed for further education and the workplace are neglected. 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. Her word for all this is “fraud.”

In What Matters?, Wendell Berry gathers new essays along with writings spanning the last quarter-century. “The ‘environmental crisis,’ ” he says, “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 500 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 local knowledge, and less skill.”

This “gross oversimplification” is in part the product of the limitations of our ways for assigning value:

We need to ask what gets left out when we look for the magic numbers that will decide complex matters for us.

“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 not 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 whatever price we put on it, by respecting it.”

Berry criticizes the absolute distinction 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. … [V]alue in the form of respect is withheld from the source, and value in the form of price is always determined by reference to 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 those 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 Diane Ravitch nor Wendell Berry argues that we should not make decisions based on valuations. We ought, though, to 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.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 11, 2010 edition of Education Week

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