New Measures of Broader Outcomes

I find that many proposals for why we should improve education rely on a handful of similar arguments. Some common ones that I encounter:

  1. Appeals that highlight opportunity gaps between high- and low-income students.
  2. Appeals about the importance of education for the U.S. economy.
  3. Appeals about “The Future” or boilerplate about our current era of “high-speed information” and the need to help students adapt to technology.

The economic and opportunity arguments are important and valuable. And while I think that a lot of technology predictions don’t pan out, I certainly want all students to be ready for “The Future,” whatever it may hold. The authors of a paper released last fall make a different appeal. In “Dissatisfied Yet Optimistic,” they argue:

We must be far less patient about expanding our vision of what it means for students to be successful and developing effective ways of supporting and measuring this broader view.

This is an argument about what students should be learning that isn’t bounded by a curriculum. It’s about multiplying an academic curriculum by what the authors refer to as “critical habits of success such as self-awareness, agency, drive, curiosity and empathy.”

I think that the writers—Stacey Childress, Aylon Samouha, Diane Tavenner, and Jeff Wetzler—rightly attribute some of the recent opposition of parents around the country to standardized tests to the narrow focus on math and reading common in many schools. But I think they’re also pointing to big, challenging, and potentially messy work, which is figuring out ways to assess these other “critical skills.” I don’t think that it’s always easy to measure these things, and there’s also a risk that it will initially feel uncomfortable or wrong to measure intangibles like curiosity, empathy, and deep content expertise. But their impatience resonates with me because I don’t think that we can wait for other elements of next-generation education systems to fall into place before digging into this question of what an expanded vision for student success is, and how to measure it.

The authors describe this element of their theory of change as a need for “new measures of broader outcomes.” This expanded vision of student success will certainly require appropriate measures of things like agency and executive function. But I think that this work can’t be left solely to the innovators and early adopters in the education world. Another of the seven “key factors” upon which their theory depends is deep engagement from “students, families, and communities.” They argue that these stakeholders need “a clear and compelling vision of what school can be for their child” and that “in short, they need a compelling reason to change what they are looking for in schools.” One of these things that families might not yet know they can look for is the expanded vision of what student success means, and how to measure it.

So this is one of many important challenges in education innovation: cultivating conversations among educators and with parents about the limited scope of what we mean by a “good school.” The primary measures of “good” that are readily available rely upon the existing narrow focus on math and reading scores.

One of the authors, Alyon Samouha, will be doing a workshop this month with the 2016 Education Innovation Fellows, and I’m eager to see what sort of new measures of broader outcomes they design.

—Andrew Plemmons Pratt

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