HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

From the Editor: What Counts

by Barbara Davis Issue: Taking Measure
TOPICS : Advocacy

We measure distance, we assess learning, and we evaluate results in terms of some set of criteria. Bob Kizlik

Disneyworld has measured the distance visitors will walk from a concession stand before throwing a wrapper on the ground. That distance is 27 steps. Thus, if you go to Disneyworld, which prizes cleanliness, you will find a trashcan every 27 steps along your way. This is an example of good data, valid assessment and meaningful evaluation leading to positive results.

In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell posits the case of a good but not great student who is accepted into a top tier university as well as a state college. She wants to major in science. Gladwell demonstrates conclusively that good students will do better at a good college than at a high prestige institution, and will be more likely to complete their desired course of studies there. The evidence is absolutely unequivocal. Where should the student go? How many of us, faced with advising one of our students or graduates, perhaps our own child, to decide between the prestige school and the good but not renowned school will not opt for the Ivy League—even though all the evidence points to the opposite conclusion?

This illustrates a point made recently in eJewish Philanthropy by David Cygielman, founder and CEO of Moishe House. He writes that “in the Jewish community we have grown to value data and evaluation. It is crucial to be learning but only if we are using that information to make better and often times, different decisions than we made prior to obtaining this information. What I see much more … is the less healthy process of making a decision based on beliefs and then working to find or create data to show why we actually made the best decision. If the initial information or data doesn’t make our case compelling, we will find new information or data. This data and evaluation that we spend so much time, money and energy on is only beneficial if it is used to change or inform our decision making; yet, if it doesn’t, the facts remain True But Useless.”

Assessment, the focus of this issue of HaYidion, is only of value if it employs meaningful criteria. A recent New York Times article by Adam Davidson examines the fallacies that underlie the US government’s assessment of the economic data that determine social and economic policy. Davidson points out that these assessments “rely on fixed definitions—created decades ago—of the phenomena they’re charged with measuring” and thus are meaningless in an age ruled by technology. He gives the example of the impossibility, just looking at the raw data, of distinguishing “the creation of Facebook from the opening of a small deli in Dubuque.”

Another Times columnist, Phyllis Korkki, recently wrote that while “big data has made it possible to measure employee performance more thoroughly than ever,” the publication of the resulting rankings had exactly the opposite of the intended effect (motivation of employees to work harder), trumped by human nature and simple math. Most people assume they are above average but, statistically, most people are average or below average, which is demoralizing and leads employees to work less hard.

We hope you will find this issue of HaYidion helpful in making valid assessments of the measurements you take in your own setting, and in making meaningful evaluations of those assessments. As with everything we do in Jewish education, we have a moral, faith-based compass to guide us to avoid misusing true but useless facts and unanticipated results. Thus, for example, it might fly in the face of all measurement and assessment for small Jewish day schools to exist, but we know in our hearts that they are needed, that they impact students’ lives tremendously and that their communities would be weakened without them. In this case, measurements of financial resources and assessments of sustainability must be evaluated according to the criteria of the value of Jewish continuity and pluralism. As sociologist William Bruce Cameron said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

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Taking Measure

Assessment is a critical function at all levels of day schools. From the classroom to the boardroom, the faculty to the head, every stakeholder and every aspect of school operations stand to benefit from evaluation. Nonetheless, thinking about assessment, and the vehicles for achieving it, are changing in many ways parallel to other aspects of school design. This issue offers reflections about assessment, various and novel ways of achieving it, and discussion of outcomes that can result from successful measurement.

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