“We Measure What we Value and We Value What we Measure” – Maybe Not

Scan the business and education books about assessment and metrics, and you will find countless people use a phrase similar to what you see in the title of this article. Measurement is a sign of what we actually value. Or, is it that measuring something has a way of making us value it?

Rarely do we venture into the correlation versus causation question. In most cases, people simply argue that a survey of what someone measures is a good indication of what they value in life or their organization. People who value money likely measure and monitor the status of their investments. Runners often track their distance, pace, and related numbers. Bloggers measure the number of unique visitors to their site and how many people read viewed a given article. The last 150 years has been a time of mass quantification, with people striving to measure or put a number on everything from intelligence to fitness levels, student learning to school quality, the return on financial investment to the return on mission investment, chances of surviving a disease to the risk of dying in a car accident. We strive to count money, people, performance, weather, crime, learning, happiness, attention, the quality of relationships, accomplishments, and most everything else.

This ability to measure brings with it obvious affordances in many aspects of our lives. Measurements help us establish goals and monitor our progress. They allow us to identify important and less important factors that lead to desired outcomes in countless areas of life and society. Yet, there is a limitation to the claim that “we measure what we value.” It is not a universal truth.

We measure some of the things that we value, but there are many things in our lives that we hold in high regard, but we do not find it necessary to quantify and measure. In addition, there is a persistent danger that our focus upon measuring can detract or distract from something more valuable. Furthermore, sometimes our fixation on a specific approach to measuring blinds us from the bigger picture. Each of these have important implications for our schools and learning communities.

For decades I obsessed with tracking the number of books that I read. Scan past articles and you will find me referencing the fact that I read 100+ books a year. There were times when the number started to take over. When I read something that inspired me and I wanted to spend more time re-reading and pondering, I found myself ignoring that desire because I had to get started on that next book. This was not always conscious. It was just that I started to talk about this 100+ books a year number and soon found myself feeling obligated to make sure that I was indeed meeting or exceeding that number as if it were some key performance indicator in my life and learning. It is not. That is why I eventually stopped measuring. Who cares how many books that I read? I value reading and learning from the writing of others. I invest significant time in this endeavor. Sometimes I read a great volume, but other times I can enjoy a long, slow, deep reading of a given text. It might take days, weeks, or months. Has my value for reading decreased because I stopped counting the number of books that I read?

There is much about learning that is valuable. Some argue that we should then insist on measuring those things as well or else they will be lost in the mass of everything that we do measure. The other option is for us to slow down on our obsession with measuring, instead seeking new ways to deepen our commitments to what we value most. We do this in many areas of our lives, and there is nothing inherently superior to insisting upon more quantification in education.

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