Thursday, January 19, 2012

Caring about what we can measure

I've written before about how we find what we look for by using a popular parable that involves a man looking for his keys late at night.

In his article titled Once Upon a Time, Not Too Long Ago, Teaching Was Considered a Profession, But Then Came Standardization, Tests, and Value-Added Merit Pay Schemes That Ate All Humanity for Breakfast... Joel Westheimer writes:
There is an old parable about a man searching on his hands and knees under a streetlight. A passerby sees him and asks, “What are you looking for?” Hunched over, eyes not leaving the ground, the man replies, “I’ve lost my car keys.” The kind passerby immediately joins him in his search. After a few minutes searching without success, she asks the man whether he is sure he lost the keys there on the street corner. “No,” he replies, pointing down the block, “I lost them over there.” Indignant, the woman asks, “Then why are you looking for them here?” The man replies, “Because there’s light here.” 
Behind the onslaught of testing and so-called “accountability” measures of the last decade lurks the same perverse logic of the man looking for his keys. We know what matters to most teachers, parents, school administrators, board members, and policy-makers. But we are far less sure how to find out whether teachers and schools are successful in teaching what matters. Since we have relatively primitive ways of assessing students’ abilities to think, create, question, analyze, form healthy relationships, and work in concert with others to improve their communities and the world, we turn instead to where the light is: standardized measures of students’ abilities to decode sentences and solve mathematical problems. In other words, since we can’t measure what we care about, we start to care about what we can measure. 
Of course, I am not being entirely fair. Educational testing enthusiasts do have some ways of measuring, for example, skills related to critical thinking. And the reading comprehension tests are evolving to consider not only whether students can understand the words and structure of a particular sentence or paragraph but also whether they can articulate something about its meaning and implications. But when researchers examine education policies broadly, and the classroom practices and habits that follow those policies, it is becoming increasingly clear that our educational goals and the methods used to assess educational progress are suffering from an appalling lack of imagination.
All this reminds me of the profound difference between measuring what we value and valuing what we measure.

1 comment:

  1. This monster we call 'data' or the results of purposeful measurement is killing creative thought in our classrooms today. My student teacher's supervisor from a local university told me that many/most of the new teacher he evaluates is now required to use a prescripted lessons from a teacher manual that resembles the basal reading books we used 25 years ago. No Child Left Behind in the US has then spawned RtI. Data driven decisions are the lowest forms of life on the earth...driving the lowest, most fact-driven learning which is boring and uninspiring for our kids. We need a way out. Thanks for the post, Joe! Talking about it is the only path we can take.

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