By Phil Deely
The Necessity of Measurement, or, pour compendre il faut computer. [“To understand something we better start counting!”]
I first ran into the debate over quantification and social policy decades before I became a development consultant while a graduate student in European History and was first presented with an approach to history that was analytical and not just hortatory or a synthesis of others opinions. Historian Marc Bloch of pour comprendre fame was required reading and we were expected to search out and analyze primary data. Of course, it wasn’t possible to rely solely on quantification—I was looking at generational conflict between conservative older intellectuals and the revolting students of the 1960’s—but, I began to see that real psychometric data such as opinion polls, numbers of citations in the popular press, and the like, enabled one to go beyond “flashes of intuition.”
Going forward a decade I left the leafy realm of academic research and was faced with developing and then implementing a system for the assessment of ‘good teaching’ in an independent/private school setting. The greatest resistance to the entire process came from faculty members who felt any reliance on standardized tests or other quantifiable data smacked of ‘public school’ and that these techniques inevitably missed the ‘ineffable essence’ of good teaching.
As I am in my third [and, I hope, final] career phase there is a lot of resonance in the current dialogue over the tendency of ‘performance measurement’ to undercut social change. Of course, if the Apostles had commissioned a feasibility study in 34 AD, the objective data would have been disheartening to Christians, unless the researcher was able to get behind the façade of Roman invulnerability. I am not, and have never been, an advocate for sole reliance on numeric measures and I find that federal requirements in particular are often overly bureaucratic whether No Child Left Behind metrics or in social purpose grants. However, given increasing donor expectations for accountability, an ongoing decline in public confidence and the tendency for some to substitute inspiration and instinct for the dismal science of measurement I believe our role is to embrace and improve most powerful tool in our repertoire-objective, quantifiable assessment.