Tuesday, May 05, 2015

"Not everything worthwhile can be measured, and not everything that can be measured is worthwhile."

This is my take on an idea that has been voiced by others, and which reminds us of the limitations on quantifying true value.

My hero in measuring is W. Edwards Deming, who basically taught that it's very easy to draw the wrong conclusions about data (see his "Red Bead Experiment"), so you teach the tools of measurement to those closest to the process, and you support them in learning how to use those measures to understand a process and make improvements. (Think about who that would be in education.)

He said: "The most important things cannot be measured." And: "The most important things are unknown or unknowable."

(Deming, credited with inspiring Japan's post-WWII economic "miracle," had a lot of other really good things to say about how we run organizations that really apply to education. We'll save those for another day.)

William Bruce Cameron said that "...not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted" (often inaccurately attributed to Einstein). The alliteration has probably added to the popularity of that quote, but I find it a little distracting.

Likewise, the version I remember from my dad, Fred Hargadon--who as dean of admissions at both Stanford and then Princeton thought a lot about how students are measures--was alliterative, and gave its own spin: "Because we cannot measure the things that have the most meaning, we give the most meaning to the things we can measure."

There's a sense in my dad's quote that is unsettling. My version, Deming's, and Cameron's give the sense of benign error; I hear in my dad's version the possibility that this may be a human cognitive flaw. Even more intriguing, is it possible that we may sometimes be guilty of knowingly taking a shortcut in promoting simplistic measures to avoid harder, deeper, more reasoned thinking?

This latter interpretation, unfortunately, is how I see the current testing debate and dialog. The idea that the kind of tests we are focusing on nationally will actually helping students or our society rests on very shallow thinking.

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