MEASURE FOR MEASURE
“If it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed.” Few dicta have in modern times enjoyed greater ascendancy. A precept first allied to the management of a business, the command to measure now pervades discussions in public life. Accountability, that word which so often seems to dominate our political discourse, is in truth a demand for measurements.
“You need to be accountable!” quickly becomes “Show us your numbers!” Any proposal or initiative of interest to the American public must begin with measurements, must develop under measurement, and will be labeled wise or foolish, a success or a failure, according to the final numbers. If it can’t be measured, it isn’t important; it isn’t necessary; and in education, it isn’t real learning. If in the end the advocates of standardized testing are not successful in embedding tests in all curricula—pre-college, university, and graduate—it will be because another means of relating learning to numbers will have been born.
When the history of education in this age begins to be told, one might well read that in 2005, we were living in the Age of Measurement. The Age of Reason, born in the 18th century, reached a robust maturity at the beginning of the 21st. Historians will first assert and then prove this assertion—with numbers!
To be sure, measurements and the numbers they publish confer upon human deliberations the comfortable aura of objectivity, explaining the present and giving form to the future. And measurements can be extremely reassuring. We know, for example, that the State of Texas has a great interest in higher education for this region because since 1990 and the advent of the South Texas Initiative, more than $220,000,000 in buildings and Special Items has been appropriated to create Texas A&M International University.
The phenomenal growth of our student body, 235 percent since 1990, suggests that we have put that investment to good use. While we strive mightily to improve our rates of retention, of graduation, of programs adequate to the needs of entering students requiring developmental learning, we know our strategies are sound because we can compare our numbers with all other state universities in Texas.
Measurements can also disclose errors in our judgments or policies, pointing to the need for new modes of thought and action. For example, we in Texas describe the 35 public institutions which award a bachelor’s degree as “four-year” universities. The numbers, however, show that no public university, including our flagship institutions, can manage to graduate even 50 percent of its students in four years. Measurements reveal that at present, Texas is served by six-year, not four-year, universities. “B-On-Time,” a proposed state plan to reward students who finish their undergraduate studies in four years, sponsored by Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and State Senator Judith Zaffirini, suddenly assumes a new urgency.
In Laredo, another measurement has spawned a new era of cooperation and collaboration between the community college, the University, and our two school districts. Measurements show that fewer than 10 percent of our graduating high school seniors are able to score “college-ready” on either one of two nation-wide tests. The response must be a united effort to examine our processes, evaluate our procedures, and align our curricula. I am confident that if strategies under discussion at present become reality, we will see a significant change in these disappointing numbers.
Measurements and their numbers both show us where we have been and where we might hope to journey in the future. But is the good health of the University assured if its numbers, its measurements, indicate strength?
Is our primary charge, as faculty and administrators, to tend and enhance those measurements? When we speak of “Alma Mater,” nurturing mother, we invoke a realm resistant to numbering, an experience of the heart.
Edna St. Vincent Millay describes our most profound charge as an institution:
The world stands out on either side, no wider than the heart is wide
. . .
If we aspire to widen hearts, can we ever know if we have succeeded? Can we know our hearts as we begin our studies, and then measure them throughout our lives? Are there any measurements adequate to evaluate this goal? Perhaps.
A challenge or a triumph or a tragedy may call forth a discrete moment in our learning, a class whose meaning we now understand. An idea, a word, a method, studied absent a vital context, may suddenly take shape in our spirit, guiding our actions. But how can we measure a sudden feeling of illumination, of understanding?
It is the great end of education to make us new men and new women. But what becomes the acceptable measure of a new life? Perhaps our most cherished goal, a new spirit, is better described than measured.
Anthony Dronman, former dean of Yale Law School, has written that education should be the “expansion of a student’s powers of sympathetic imagination.”
Could we ever measure, could we ever evaluate, the sympathetic imaginations of our students?
Ray M. Keck III