What we measure and hold up now is pretty limited -- test scores, drug use, cheating on tests. Sometimes we get stuck in the mode of just using the data we have, even when they are not the measures we need. How many times are we forced to consider how well our youth are doing by just looking at deficits or test scores rather than strengths?
I believe we do need to be accountable for our collective impact, not just our program and organizational impact. I also believe that we need a set of valued and visible measures for youth -- measures that:
- are valued for what they do capture about youths' experiences while they are in those expanded learning opportunities
- are visible to the public and remind people of how important and needed community learning opportunities are for our youth
- include academic measures, but go beyond them
- don't just talk about the size of the problems that youth have but the levels of engagement in their own learning and in our communities as well as the size of their contributions
One barrier is that these positives are considered hard to measure. For example, a colleague identified to me recently the importance that African American males place on feeling respected and that someone in their schools actually cares about their learning. This value is so great to them that when it is achieved, it is still hard to see or expect achievement as it is traditionally measured. The problem is that the gains these youth have toward feeling engaged and respected are regarded as "qualitative" and "anecdotal" - not measurable. But they are not anecdotal. They are measurable and meaningful in young people's lives. They are the types of measures we need to put into policy and change efforts.
Too often we are our own enemies in this regard. By talking about what we do as deeper and richer than something measures can capture we too often devalue the very things that do matter. Many of these elements are measurable. Many of them, if measured and held up as valuable for policy makers and citizens alike, could be changed if we work together.
I long for the day when we measure the success of our youth along their journey with measures that are rich and wonderful at capturing engagement in learning, contributions by youth, the level of socio-emotional growth as well as reading and math competency. I hope for the day that we find energy for action from knowing our young people miss the very strengths we want them to have, not just from fear of the drugs they use or their sexual activity or the lack of progress in test scores. I am all for accountability but let's at least be accountable for all of the things that really matter.
As a field we need to support measurement that matters, and not let our youth or schools or communities be defined as failing because of their math and reading numbers alone. If we do not want youth to become numbers only, perhaps ironically we need to know more about them as a whole. Are they engaged in their learning in life, not just in school? Do they know the sparks that drive them? Do the people in their life support and respect them?
What do you think are the measures that should get the same attention as reading and math scores or GDP in our state and national debates?
-- Dale Blyth, associate dean and director
The importance of measuring non-academic outcomes is the subject of a public symposium we will present on October 6. Learn more and register.