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Measure what matters, but do we know?

March 17, 2014

Giselle Martin-Kniep, President of Learner Centered Initiatives, spoke at ASCD 2014 about being sure we measure what matters.  She asked two fundamental questions that were the focus of her exploration.

What does measuring what matters mean?

Do we have the courage and will to measure what matters?

One way to get into a deeper discussion of this question is to ask: What do we want graduates from our schools to know and be able to do, as well as how do we want them to lead their life?  I believe the exploration of this question leads us to conclude that we should measure what we value, but not only in the domain of knowing to which we comfortably default.  We rarely think about the need to value what students can do with what they know or with how they live their life.  What are the values they cherish?

If we measure what we value, then in the United States we value how students perform on standardized tests because that is what we spend the majority of our time measuring or preparing to measure.  The interesting thing from Martin-Kniep’s research is that when you ask teachers what they value relative to their students, they almost never say anything about performance on standardized tests.  In fact, most teachers will reference valuing human qualities or behaviors like:

  • good citizenship
  • perseverance
  • taking responsibility for one’s learning
  • kindness and honesty

She had us complete this exercise in the workshop of 75+ educators and sure enough not one person or group reported on valuing anything having to do with objectively measuring content acquisition or grading.  This is a sampling of what we generated in the workshop:

  • commitment to learn
  • necessary skills to learn on one’s own
  • grit
  • be career and life ready
  • critical thinking ability
  • nice person, civil human beings
  • independent thinkers
  • responsible for their learning

And yet, most schools don’t measure student growth in any of these areas or report growth in them to a students’ parents.  Why?  Could it be that while we say these are important behaviors to learn in school we really don’t value them?  Could it be we don’t know how to measure the growth in what we would refer to as “softer” or “non-cognitive” skills?  Many of these skills are really “habits of mind.”  So why is it that we pay lip service to the importance of developing good habits of mind but fail to develop a reliable and comprehensive way to measure them.  Could it be that we think we can only measure things like how much content a student has acquired or possibly whether he or she can use the content?

I would only be projecting answers to the above set of questions.  However, it is clear to me that on a national and state level we flounder in our ability to measure what we value. I believe our reason for floundering is because we rarely talk about what we value in education.  We spend too much time worrying about whether students are prepared for the test or whether they will get into a good college.  Educators should look in the mirror with regard to these issues.  While we are quick to blame students, parents, and society for focusing on the wrong drivers.  We are at the center, promoting a school culture that does not measure what we say we value.  If anyone could change what the school culture values, its educators in the system.

ASCD does a good job of promoting the education of the whole child.  Many schools insert that tagline in their mission or vision statement.  And yet, many of these same schools push and grade students on content acquisition, giving little credence to measuring what matters in the bigger picture.  So let’s start to focus on what we value and begin to construct ways to measure it.  If we do, then students will develop a more well-rounded sense of the purpose of school.

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