Thursday, March 1, 2012

Reduced to Numbers

"Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts." 

-Albert Einstein

Last year, teachers in Los Angeles suffered under the LA Times printing of teacher evaluations based on standardized test scores.

This year, New York teachers are the target of a naming and shaming operation that took place when the New York media published evaluations that ranked teachers by their students' standardized test scores.

There's a lot wrong with all this and Diane Ravitch aptly explains how reducing the quality of a teacher to a score and then making this unreliable and invalid data public is nothing more than a ploy to undermine public confidence in public education.

The problem here isn't just that these teacher evaluations and rankings were made public -- although making them public certainly does make things worse -- the real problem here is that the complex work of teaching is being reduced to a number at all.

Teacher evaluations via test scores are prone to such error that they are not valid or reliable regardless of whether they are public or private.

After reading one New York teacher's response to being labelled "below average" despite what other anecdotal and qualitative evidence suggests, I took note of one of his points:
As with many things in life, teaching cannot be simplified into an algorithm.
What if the logical conclusion of this line of reasoning is that the most important things that happen in school cannot and should not be reduced to a number?

What if Rog Lucido is right in saying:
We delude ourselves into thinking we have measured learning because we uncritically accept the premise that 'learning is measurable'.
How many teachers are demoralized or angered about having their complex work reduced to a number but then go to school the next day and do exactly that to their students?

With every crisis there comes an opportunity. Could it be that there is an opportunity for us all to see that neither teaching or learning should be reduced to numbers?

If there's a silver lining to all this I hope it is this:

It wasn't until the system tried to grade teachers that teachers could finally see why they should not be grading students.

For more on abolishing grading from school check out this page.

To join a movement for abolishing grading, check out The Grading Moratorium.

You might also want to check out Alfie Kohn's article The Case Against Grades.


  1. This stuff is just the logical extension of students testing isn't it? If we can numerically measure student learning we can do the same to teaching. It feels a bit like the old holocaust story about when they came for the gypsies I didn't complain, so when they came for me, there was no on left to complain.

    It's the last gasp of industrial thinking, of 'scientific management'. Everything can be measured, counted, standardized and then improved. Things that can't be counted don't count. Things like creativity, initiative, compassion, etc. The very skills we need for the post industrial age.

  2. A kids grade doesn't depend on what 100+ other people do or don't do. It's a stupid argument.

  3. Thanks for this piece. Thanks to people who care like you do, I think the tide just might be turning....


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