Are We Measuring the Wrong Stuff?

While speaking to faculty members in the DeSoto School District in Kansas last week, one teacher said something remarkable to me during a break. He said: “I wonder if the problem is—we are measuring the wrong stuff.”

He was talking about how much high school faculty are required to teach that doesn’t really matter to life. But that’s only the beginning. We measure standardized testing, pushing instructors to simply teach for the test and students to simply memorize for it—not really learn something. So many schools have become institutions to pass students through whether they learn something or not. Often, an adolescent can graduate and not possess fundamentals in reading, writing and critical thinking. For that matter, students can graduate from college without those basics. They may have temporarily memorized some facts, but they didn’t learn how to think.

Here’s the problem. After World War II, the failures of our education system to meet the rising need for scientists generated “back to the basics” curriculum reform movements that began in the 1960s (Hoopes and Oakland University, 1963). These movements advocated standardized courses of study with prescribed content. It drew huge monetary investments in science education by the National Science Foundation (NSF). In spite of this effort we failed. We’ve reduced education to data transmittal and testing—rather than equipping students to think, and it hasn’t worked.

Science teacher Robin Wright has it figured out: “I’ve abandoned the mistaken notion that unless I ‘cover’ a particular list of ‘content,’ my students will be unprepared for the future and I will have failed them as a teacher. I no longer agonize about losing valuable lecture time to in-class discussions, group problem solving, or other activities that prevent me from covering content. Instead, I purposefully include activities to offer a richer, more valuable learning experience. This change moves toward a “lived curriculum” that provides meaning well beyond the particular facts about biology. Rather than focusing on covering key facts or principles, a lived curriculum in general biology focuses on helping students learn to use scientific knowledge to solve relevant problems. Content mastery emerges naturally as students seek out, evaluate, and organize the information they need to develop an informed understanding about an issue such as the genetics of race, stem cell research, or invasive species…By focusing our efforts on developing intellectual skills rather than simply covering a list of facts, a lived curriculum will have a long-term positive impact on students’ lives and their ability to function as informed citizens in a democratic society.”

The bottom line:

– What gets measured gets mastered.  (Are we measuring true learning?)
– What gets rewarded gets repeated.  (Are we rewarding real growth?)

What if we measure how well students have learned to think critically? And, what if we rewarded creative problem solving instead of merely memorizing stats, facts and dates for a test? We may just have some smart leaders emerging in the future.

Can we do this? Am I exaggerating the problem?


Are We Measuring the Wrong Stuff?