What we choose to measure and how we choose to measure them same a good deal about our values; albeit expressing things in numbers tend to provide a patina of objectivity to the results. Thus, the health of our economy is often expressed by the gross domestic product calculation – the value of all the goods and services produced by our society. When we stop and think about this supposed measure of the health our economy, we realize that it includes the diagnosis and treatment of every cancer, the repair of all the damage from every automobile accident and the funeral arrangements of those who didn’t survive them. Our interest is on growth regardless of what produces it.
Similarly, we measure the worth of our schools by student scores in reading and math, thereby ensuring that teachers will focus most of their teaching time and attention of those subjects, increasingly excluding almost everything else. We evaluate the worth of our teachers on those scores, even though we know these results are influenced by a host of variable totally beyond their control. Few stop to think if reading and math are all we want to provide our children. Yet, if we pause to think most people would say school should be about a whole lot more.
I’ve been thing about the measurement of human efforts on and off some time, probably ever since I read Stephen Gould’s Mismeasure of Man years ago. The other day, Diane Ravitch highlighted a recent paper by Richard Rothstein and Rebecca Jacobsen on the history of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often referred to as our schools’ report-card. It turns out the designers of the original NAEP sought collect data on the things that schools spent from 15 to 20 percent of their time on, including art, citizenship, foreign language, career and occupational development and physical fitness among others. The original goal was not to express the findings of the survey as a test score but rather to report data the way the census does, x percent of students are able to demonstrate this skill or behavior. The developers of the NAEP understood schools serve complex social functions for our society and looked to create instruments to provide information for education policy makers.
Today, as we have narrowed the focus of what we measure about our schools, we have narrowed the focus of what they attempt to inculcate in our youth. Test reading and math and tie teacher evaluations to the results – don’t be surprised that reading and math crowd out most everything else. From the wonderful Rothstein/Jacobsen paper I learned that there is a law that expresses this connection between the measurement of social phenomena and policy making. It’s called Campbell’s Law which states, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social process it intended to monitor.” Distorted and corrupted – good words to describe what is happening to New York’s schools as a result of their mismeasure.