“Democracy is finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems.”
Reinhold Niebuhr

In education, we often place high value on those things which we can quantify, measure, and analyze using statistical methods. Certainly the most prevalent example of this is the use of the standardized assessments of student achievement that are a ubiquitous part of the American educational system.

While these quantitative measures are important and useful, there are also certainly many things in education (and in life for that matter) for which there are no standardized and quantifiable measures. These things which defy quantification are also things we frequently recognize are incredibly important. Things like the introspective and interpretive value of passionate art and music – like the Edvard Munch painting, or so many of the enduring songs by U2. Also above quantification is the value of the inspiring and uplifting visions of people working together toward a common and important goal – like so many of the images and stories we now hear of the democratic uprisings happening in the Middle East. Perhaps the greatest example is the power of human emotion, relationship, and connection – the apex of these being the complex emotion of love, in all its forms and nuances.

All of these things defy easy quantification, but are certainly of the greatest value.

In education, many of the things that are of the greatest value also defy easy quantification. Take for example the act of teaching. Teaching is perhaps more art than science, and happens in a complex and dynamic environment. While we can certainly identify those things research tells us are ‘best practices’ when it comes to teaching, and even design ‘rubrics’ and scales to evaluate those practices, deciding what is (or what is not) good teaching relies fundamentally on good and old fashioned … human judgement.

Human judgment is fundamentally subjective, contextual, and flawed. It is also incredibly important. Arguably, more important than any quantifiable measure. Rather than trying to mitigate the subjective effects of human judgment by chasing quantitative measures, in many cases we should be embracing the inherently unquantifiable power of human judgment.

A fundamental principle we can apply to using human judgment is balancing it with a democratic process. That is, whenever we need to rely on human judgment to make a decision, we should have more humans doing the judging. Validity and reliability remain critical concepts, but so does creating a democratic process by which we can harness the power of human judgment and mitigate some of the significant power and subjectivity issues.

Consider teacher evaluation. Rather than relying on one person (usually an administrator) to make a subjective human judgment on the quality of teaching, we should involve more people in the act of evaluating and judgment.

As we struggle with how to handle the difficult questions that arise when we really try to evaluate and determine educator effectiveness, capturing the value of human judgment – but balancing it with democracy – is an important principle for us to consider.

Jason Glass
Des Moines, IA