Do America's Schools Need a "Dow Jones Index"?

James W. Guthrie
Policy Analysis for California Education

It is difficult to envision a people more preoccupied with performance than Americans. Keeping records, shattering records, breaking world records, setting national records, establishing personal records, or being the first, the best, or the most are all the "stuff" of our national obsession with measuring individual and institutional performance. Almost every U.S. city, whether it be a metropolis or a hamlet, lays some claim to a record. It somehow possesses the largest, oldest, longest, heaviest, slowest, tallest, greatest, smallest, tastiest, deepest, quietest, fastest, highest, or prettiest something. It is little wonder that the Guinness Book of Records is regularly among the bestselling publications in the U.S. (We know because we keep records.)

People go so far as to invent activities so that, even if only for a short time, they can hold the record for doing it. Some of this measurement is frivolous, such as a national survey conducted in 1990 to determine, on the basis of Rolaids sales, which U.S. cities had the highest rates of heartburn. Some measurement is fundamental to human survival, such as the figures we maintain on global warming or infant mortality. Some measurement is straightforward and easily understood, such as annual rainfall records. Other measures are abstract, esoteric, and highly specialized, such as Federal Reserve money supply indicators, the M series. Some measurement is remarkably precise, such as lifetime major league baseball batting averages. Other measures are continuously controversial and subject to constant revision, such as international indices of civil liberties. Some measures are easily calculated and popularly understood, such as won/lost figures for athletic teams. Other measures, while perhaps widely accepted, are only vaguely understood by laypeople, such as the Consumer Price Index.

Regardless of the complexity or simplicity, advantages or disadvantages, confidence or controversy, there is hardly a nook or cranny of everyday U.S. existence that goes unmeasured: life, death, sex, taxes, crime, athletics, economics, transportation, health, commerce, and so on. We as a people have grown accustomed to a broad spectrum of performance measures, which appear regularly on our television, in our newspapers, and in our conversations and which even become part of our everyday contractual agreements, such as pay raises, home loans, and divorce settlements. No doubt the ultimate explanation for this measurement mania resides somewhere deep within our national character or collective psyche. Meanwhile, suffice it to say that these measures also serve many practical purposes. They enable us to chart trends in areas that have an impact on everyday existence; to make informed predictions regarding important future events; to plot progress toward significant goals; to convey complicated information to a wide audience quickly; to reach agreement on controversial issues in a relatively short period of time; and so on. In short, Americans find performance measures to be a major asset in plotting and planning our personal lives, professional activities, public policies, and private sector endeavors.

This article was originally published in the Phi Delta Kappan by Phi Delta Kappa International and Journal Storage (JSTOR).

Suggested citationGuthrie, J. W. (1993, March). Do America's schools need a "Dow Jones index"? [Article]. Policy Analysis for California Education.