Opinion
Federal Opinion

What Counts, or What Is Counted?

By Michael K. Stone — July 22, 2010 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Related Tags:

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

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
From Chaos to Clarity: How to Master EdTech Management and Future-Proof Your Evaluation Processes
The road to a thriving educational technology environment is paved with planning, collaboration, and effective evaluation.
Content provided by Instructure
Special Education Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table - Special Education: Proven Interventions for Academic Success
Special education should be a launchpad, not a label. Join the conversation on how schools can better support ALL students.
Special Education K-12 Essentials Forum Innovative Approaches to Special Education
Join this free virtual event to explore innovations in the evolving landscape of special education.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Classroom Tech Outpaces Research. Why That's a Problem
Experts call for better alignment between research and the classroom in Capitol Hill discussions.
4 min read
People walk outside the U.S Capitol building in Washington, June 9, 2022.
People walk outside the U.S Capitol building in Washington, June 9, 2022. Experts called for investments in education research and development at a symposium at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on June 13.
Patrick Semansky/AP
Federal Opinion Federal Education Reform Has Largely Failed. Unfortunately, We Still Need It
Neither NCLB nor ESSA have lived up to their promise, but the problems calling for national action persist.
Jack Jennings
4 min read
Red, Blue, and Purple colors over a fine line etching of the Capitol building. Republicans and Democrats, Partisan Politicians.
Douglas Rissing/iStock
Federal A More Complete Picture of Immigration's Impact on U.S. Public Schools
House Republicans say a migrant influx has caused "chaos" in K-12 schools. The reality is more complicated.
10 min read
Parents and community members rally outside P.S. 189 to protest New York City Mayor Eric Adam's plan to temporarily house immigrants in the school's gymnasium, seen in the background on May 16, 2023, in New York.
Parents and community members rally outside P.S. 189 to protest New York City Mayor Eric Adam's plan to temporarily house immigrants in the school's gymnasium, seen in the background on May 16, 2023, in New York.
John Minchillo/AP
Federal Explainer What Is Title IX? Schools, Sports, and Sex Discrimination
Title IX, the law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, is undergoing changes. What it is, how it works, and how it's enforced.
2 min read
In this Nov. 21, 1979 file photo, Bella Abzug, left, and Patsy Mink of Women USA sit next to Gloria Steinem as she speaks in Washington where they warned presidential candidates that promises for women's rights will not be enough to get their support in the next election.
In this Nov. 21, 1979, photo, Bella Abzug, left, and Patsy Mink of Women USA sit next to Gloria Steinem as she speaks in Washington at an event where they warned presidential candidates that promises for women's rights will not be enough to win their support in the next election.
Harvey Georges/AP