Quantifying the Unquantifiable

Diane Ravitch

In Joseph Conrad’s 1903 classic Heart of Darkness, there’s a scene where a physician, “an unshaven little man in a threadbare coat,” measures the skull of the main character, who is embarking on a journey to Africa. The doctor explains that he always does this, out of scientific interest, when examining someone bound for the Dark Continent. Asked if he repeats the head measuring after travelers return, the physician smiles cryptically. “Oh, I never see them,” he says, and adds, “Moreover, the changes take place inside, you know.”

Here was a novelist’s way of exposing the Western values system and its fixation on measurement and quantification. The scene came to mind recently as yet another education reform group issued yet another report lauding the ever-expanding use of standardized tests in American schools. Specifically, the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality highlighted the trend toward evaluating teachers on the basis of “objective evidence.” By which the Council meant student scores collected from the one-size-fits-all tests.

The Obama administration is using the federal purse to reward school systems that tow this line. The administration’s Race to the Top program is a tribute to this notion that understanding a teacher’s gifts or a student’s insights is pretty much a matter of doing the numbers. But is such thinking akin to the antics of Conrad’s head-measuring physician, who made a habit of quantifying the unquantifiable?

Diane Ravitch would say so. She served as an assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration, and her most recent book is The Death and Life of the Great American School System. The title evokes Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), which ripped apart a political presumption of her time—“urban renewal.”

Ravitch is not opposed to testing as such. The education historian is against high-stakes testing, allowing scores to determine, for example, whether to fire a teacher or even shutter a school. She’s an unlikely skeptic in that regard, having once trumpeted, from her federal post and then from the conservative Hoover Institution, the very reform measures (including charter schools) she now deplores. Ravitch explains that evidence attesting to the benefits of these measures never materialized, and there’s mounting evidence that the reforms are distorting educational priorities.

As she tells it, education policy makers took a wrong turn when they started listening to, of all people, economists. Practitioners of the dismal science are behind the latest research fad, “value-added assessment,” which holds that teacher quality can be measured by test-score gains. The operative assumption is that a teacher’s worth “can be quantified, and those who do the quantification need never enter a classroom or think about how children learn,” Ravitch comments.

A Belief System Unto Itself

To be fair, complaining about economists who find answers in hard data is a bit like complaining about preachers who seek guidance in the Bible. That’s what they do. For most economists today, ultimate value is discerned largely through statistical models. As with all science, truth is reducible to fact. In the hands of many, this becomes a belief system unto itself.

There are other ways of knowing, though. Usually contrasted with the scientific method is the religious path to understanding, which draws on the symbols and imagery of faith as well as on the experience of the sacred. But truth can be gleaned also from poetry, from moral discourse, from all the disciplines of the liberal arts. In education there are rafts of research, storehouses of insight into such matters as how children learn and how teachers get through to them. Little of this lends to simple quantification.

The problem is not with economists and their econometrics. It’s with the incredible notion that all we’ve learned about masterly teaching, how to inspire and illuminate—and much that is yet to be learned—are of little consequence, now that there’s “value-added assessment.” Large swaths of the education policy establishment today appear to be in thrall to this belief.

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the author tells of the best teacher she ever had, Mrs. Ruby Ratliff, who taught English to seniors at Ravitch’s high school in Houston a half-century ago. Mrs. Ratliff exposed students to the great writers of the English language. Through the stories and verses, she also imparted lessons about character and discipline that spoke to young minds and hearts. The teacher had her students write long essays, and used her red pen freely.

I believe Mrs. Ratliff was a great teacher, but I don’t think she would have been considered “great” if she had been judged by the kind of hard data that is used now. How would the experts have measured what we learned? We never took a multiple-choice test. We wrote essays and took written tests in which we had to explain our answers, not check a box or fill in a bubble.

Mrs. Ratcliff would perhaps earn little credit from evaluators today, because her students would learn lessons that are hard to quantify—and because, as Conrad styled it, “the change takes place inside, you know.” …read more

Remembering the Godmother of American Cities

Jane Jacobs, 1961

During the 1950s and 1960s, urban planners had a dream: to remake cities in the image of suburbs. They strove to bring about smoother traffic flow with the construction of urban superhighways, less population density with the dismantling of old neighborhoods, and a strict separation of commercial and residential spaces (read: shopping malls and bedroom communities). The preferred method of effecting these changes was bulldozing.

Places like the West End of Boston, a working-class community of Italians and Jews, were razed and replaced by freeways or, in this case, superblocks of high-rise residential towers and barren, concrete plazas. In Boston, after demolition of the West End in 1958–59, city planners contemplated, with no more affection, another crowded district on their turf—the North End. In New York, plans were readied for the decimation of Lower Manhattan, to clear way for a 10-lane expressway.

When did America begin to turn a fresh eye toward neighborhoods like the North End and New York’s Greenwich Village? This isn’t anyone’s guess. In hindsight, the reassessment began 50 years ago, when a little-known writer who was raising three children in Greenwich Village brought forth a magisterial work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The 1961 book by Jane Jacobs was tantamount to a precision bombing of city planning agencies nationwide, as Jacobs laid unflinching siege to the then-reigning wisdom that large swaths of cities needed to be rebuilt from scratch.

City planners abhorred urban density, associating it with congestion and unhealthy conditions; Jacobs believed it was essential, partly because more people meant more “eyes on the street,” making all feel safer. She liked to see a mingling of functions—shopping, living, working, leisure—believing diversity made cities come alive. In that first book of hers, she pronounced Boston’s North End, with its cheek-by-jowl dwellings and shops, and sidewalks full of chatter, “the healthiest neighborhood in the city.”

Taking Down Moses

Jacobs died in 2006 at age 89. Her story is a cautionary tale against the tendency to theologize notions that are, at best, mere assumptions. Urban policy makers had turned ideas and practices—such as getting people off the streets for the sake of traffic flow—into solemn doctrines. The chief evangelist of this belief system was Jacobs’s nemesis, Robert Moses, the premier builder of his time and probably any time in American history.

As an urban activist, Jacobs had three epoch showdowns with Moses, beginning in 1958 when she rallied her West Village neighbors against his plan to run a four-lane highway through the middle of Washington Square Park, and ending in 1969. The last and most hair-raising of these projects was what Moses called the Lower Manhattan Expressway, the 10-lane superhighway that was set to pierce through Little Italy, Chinatown, the Bowery, and the Lower East Side, and completely destroy a district then known vaguely as the area south of Houston Street, now the thriving arts and shopping district Soho. The once-invincible Moses lost each of those battles.

Today, Jacobs is venerated widely as the godmother of urban America, the one who fought off the suburbanization of the city. In New York, her legacy is there to see. Just listing the would-have-been Moses projects—the highway through Washington Square Park, the razing of the West Village (yet another struggle), the dismembering of Lower Manhattan—takes the breath away. In each instance, Jacobs was the main stopper.

And many a neighborhood beyond Manhattan that had an appointment with the wrecking crew was also spared, owing in part to Jacobs. The protracted, grassroots campaign against the Lower Manhattan Expressway helped ignite a nationwide anti-freeway movement that frustrated similar designs in, among other places, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, Memphis, New Orleans, Seattle, and San Francisco, as Anthony Flint documents in his 2009 book Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City.

Faith in the City

Jacobs eventually took up broader questions of ethics and morality, mostly in her later writings on economics and the environment. But her insights were never as profound as when she was simply noticing the ways in which apartment dwellers, store owners, truck drivers, schoolchildren, and others interacted on city streets—scenes related in Death and Life as part of “an intricate sidewalk ballet.” Like some of the greatest philosophers and theologians—Aristotle and Aquinas, namely—Jacobs reasoned inductively, drawing her conclusions about the world not from abstract notions but from the data of experience and observation. The prominent sociologist William H. Whyte once remarked that her research apparatus consisted of “the eye and the heart.”

A lapsed Presbyterian who forged close conversational ties with theologians at Boston College, Jacobs put her faith in humans and local communities. If she espoused any doctrine, it was their ability to forge vitality out of their spontaneous everyday interplay.

Most of it is utterly trivial but the sum is not trivial. The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level—most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone—is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need (Death and Life, p. 56, Vintage Books Edition).

Such faith made it possible for Jane Jacobs to attack the ersatz theologies of her time, with respect to urban policy, and to become the mom who saved Manhattan. …read more