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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


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?



  1. Donald Christian on February 21, 2011 at 8:43 am

    AMEN – let’s not limit this to public education. let’s look at higher education, workforce training, and even Sunday School. Figure out what we want our students to know and be able to do 6 years from now – that’s what we should be measuring…

    • Tim Elmore on February 21, 2011 at 2:30 pm

      Thanks Donald for your comment. You are exactly right. Every area of our society that works with young people need to work together to teach them to be successful and responsible adults.

  2. Queenchris6701 on February 21, 2011 at 8:49 am

    Hi Tim. I wonder if you have any idea how bad Detroit public schools are. Maybe if they did what you said kids wouldn’t drop out (finding gang life to be more relevant to their lives)
    Man you should call Robert Bobb & see if you can knock some sense into the DPS teachers.

    • Tim Elmore on February 21, 2011 at 2:29 pm

      I am not sure how bad the Detroit schools are exactly, although as I travel across the US, there are common themes and problems that are arising. If we do our part, then hopefully we will start to see a change. Thanks for your comment.

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Are We Measuring the Wrong Stuff?