Today the memory of the Vietnam conflict is fading. Time has passed, and new generations have no direct remembrance of that historical period. The war fractured society and became the dominant topic in the nightly news and commentary.

Looking back, the Vietnam War provided valuable lessons about management and leadership that can guide us in the future. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara was the person, next to the president, most responsible for leading this conflict. He stated, “every quantitative measurement we have shows we are winning the war.”

McNamara’s approach resulted in creating a misleading picture that was labeled ‘McNamara’s Fallacy’, also known as quantitative fantasy. Sociologist Daniel Yankelovich summarized McNamara’s Fallacy as having four steps.

  • “Measure what can be measured.  This is fine as far as it goes.
  • Disregard that which can’t be measured or give it an arbitrary quantitative value.  This is arbitrary and misleading.
  • Presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t very important. This is blindness.
  • Say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is madness.”

Pentagon and political leaders failed to take into account the intangibles of commitment, patriotism, hope, passion, courage, loyalty, responsibility, and others. When we examine great achievements and accomplishments issues like perseverance and heart are critical. In the Vietnam War, body counts were less important than commitment and loyalty to the cause.

So what does this have to do with school reform? The documentary about Vietnam entitled, “The Fog of War” discusses McNamara’s approach through interviews with him. The “fog” was created by the metrical approach to decision-making, the lack of concern for intangibles, and the failure to question the basic assumptions behind the war to begin with.

McNamara may have failed because he believed that you could model and manipulate the inputs and outputs of any system. He didn’t value the complexity of systems involving living things. If variables were unwieldy or immeasurable, he simply ignored them.

When human beings are involved metrics do not always predict behavior or reflect reality. Seeing the complexity in human endeavors is necessary because simplistic measurements do not provide a complete and valid picture. Motives and emotion cannot be calibrated through statistics. A leader’s judgment, not simply quantitative analysis, is essential in dynamic complex systems.

People behave in unpredictable ways at times. Humans do not act in formulaic or anticipated ways. We all have biases of judgment and do not always respond algorithmically — perspectives change and cognitive and emotional reactions do not follow prescriptions or expectations based on the past or encouraged by scientific management.

The same is true with school reform. A dense fog surrounding the reform movement exists for the same reasons. We have a penchant to believe numbers and think metrics accurately define reality. How could you argue with statistics? Hard numbers supposedly don’t lie.

Unless we realize this fog exists in education, we will never get to a place called school that is appropriate and successful for children. What is manifest is not the issue. Chaos and non-rationality exist and are a part of all open social systems. We have to be aware of our limits to quantify key issues concerning school reform and child development.

We must challenge school reformers’ assumptions and question what their definition of education is. We must challenge what approach is appropriate to ensure that our children and citizenry are well educated. Few raise these issues. We have fallen into the McNamara-like approach of centralized control and tactics emphasizing standardized test scores, inspections, evaluating teachers on metrics, and ignoring other data and intangibles that are critical in successful learning environments.

High-stakes measurements are not indicative of quality education. Quantifiable approaches fail to consider that students are not simple numbers and that they come to school with tangible and intangible cognitive, physical and emotional issues that affect their performance. Home life, poverty, health, nutrition, drugs, and community or domestic violence affect their behavior. In reality, teaching is really based on relationships with students, as well as teachers’ passion and commitment.

The dysfunctions and ethically questionable patterns in the Vietnam experience exist today in education reform and the media. The numerical fetish in pursuit of big data and quantification can be very misleading and not suitable for creating schools and classrooms that nourish children’s curiosity, hearts, and souls. Wisdom is important, not only in management, but also as a goal of well-educated people.

McNamara and the statistical analysis ‘Whiz Kids’ were perceived and caricatured as “smart but not wise” — leaders obsessed with narrow quantitative measures that lack human understanding and perspective of the larger and complex picture.

Some education reformers show the same qualities: smart but not wise.