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Metrics Can’t Quantify the Most Important Factor in Schools…. LOVE

January 24, 2016

Last Sunday’s NYTimes featured an op ed column by Robert M. Wachter, a professor and the interim chairman of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and the author of “The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age.” Titled “How Measurement Fails Doctors and Teachers“, Wachter’s article focussed primarily on the medical field, but he noted several parallels between the efforts to hold teachers and doctors accountable through the use of objective measures.

Wachter opens with the observation that in both medicine and education we are “…hitting the targets, but missing the point” as we introduce layer upon layer of measurement. Wachter offers this overview of what has happened since the advent of these metrics:

Education is experiencing its own version of measurement fatigue. Educators complain that the focus on student test performance comes at the expense of learning. Art, music and physical education have withered, because, really, why bother if they’re not on the test?

At first, the pushback from doctors and teachers was dismissed as whining from entitled and entrenched guilds spoiled by generations of unfettered autonomy. It was natural, went the thinking, that these professionals would resist the scrutiny and discipline of performance assessment. Of course, this interpretation was partly right.

But the objections became harder to dismiss as evidence mounted that even superb and motivated professionals had come to believe that the boatloads of measures, and the incentives to “look good,” had led them to turn away from the essence of their work. In medicine, doctors no longer made eye contact with patients as they clicked away. In education, even parents who favored more testing around Common Core standards worried about the damaging influence of all the exams.

At the end of his piece, Wachter quotes Avedis Donabedian, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, an eminent expert in medical quality measurement.  At the end of his career Professor Donabedian was asked what was the most important quality in the delivery of medicine. His response:

“The secret of quality is love,” he said.

Wachter concludes his essay with this paragraph:

Our businesslike efforts to measure and improve quality are now blocking the altruism, indeed the love, that motivates people to enter the helping professions. While we’re figuring out how to get better, we need to tread more lightly in assessing the work of the professionals who practice in our most human and sacred fields.

And on this Sunday, let us all say “Amen”.

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