In modern education, metrics 'r' us

Measuring achievement is the hallmark of the current approach to education. But is passing tests the only point of learning?

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    FIRST-GRADERS PARTICIPATED IN CLASS AT LEVITON DUAL LANGUAGE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL IN PROVIDENCE, R.I.
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If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. That mantra (variously misattributed to W. Edwards Deming, Peter Drucker, and the math whiz over there in the accounting department) has spread in recent years from the scientific community to finance, from business to schools. And with good reason. 

Everything we do generates data. We walk a certain number of steps, work a certain number of hours, generate revenue, produce widgets, and account for costs. Whether or not that information is always relevant, it is measurable. It can be captured and compared month to month and year to year. If you did x one month and x plus 1 the next, you improved. Do x times 50 and you’re Warren Buffett.

Metrics are better than guesses. A good guess might lead to something wonderful, but that is rare, and a worker who only guesses won’t go far. Being systematic is important. Producing consistent results is crucial – whether repairing a faucet or building a jet engine. As you’ll see in Sarah Garland’s recent Monitor cover story (read it here), the three-decade effort to improve public education in the United States – initiated by the 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report and brought forward by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act and the current Common Core initiative – has relied heavily on metrics.

Students, teachers, and schools are held to a set of standards and are constantly being tested and evaluated, their performance compared with their past performances and with those of other students, teachers, and schools. At one level, this has been an understandable attempt to give all students, in rich and poor districts alike, the same quality of education. While most funding for public education is local, the students who graduate join a national workforce, so federal funding and standards are appropriate.

 
While education metrics have gotten less crude over time, they have become an end in themselves. Teachers are known to “teach to the test,” students to learn just what they need to master the test. Is something missing there?

The authors of “A Nation at Risk” were actually less concerned with tests and metrics than with the creation of what they called a “Learning Society,” one in which young people were prepared for the future with information and problem-solving skills but also encouraged to value education “not only because of what it contributes to one’s career goals but also because of the value it adds to the general quality of one’s life.”

We’re managing public education by measuring it. If that has improved most schools for most people, that’s a net plus. Education helps people, businesses, and nations thrive, which is why no one should be left behind by poor teaching, inadequate facilities, or lack of order in the classroom. But education goes far beyond courses and curricula. It is a hunger and thirst to know more about life. The risk we run when education falls short – by neglect or by rigidity – is not just to our children and nation, it is to the best part of what it means to be human.

John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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