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Let's measure everything that matters

Dale-Blyth.jpgWhat outcomes do we want for our children and youth? What outcomes can we expect from expanded learning opportunities during the non-school hours?

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. measuring-height.jpgFor 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.
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  1. Hi Dale,
    I'm going to be bold and take a stab at your question. In an ideal world I wish that we would consistently measure if youth are connected, feel safe at school, have caring adults in their lives, and have access to some form of extra-curricular activity.
    I keep my eyes on the early childhood field, and recently there was a news article that stated soft skills (sharing, cooperating, etc.) that are a cornerstone of early childhood environments are actually the most desired skills by future employers. I would argue that these skills aren't "soft" but are some of the most important skills that youth can learn both in and out of the classroom. Ask yourself, would you rather know that a future employee can solve an algebraic formula of that they can work at a team to come to design a project?
    Thanks for opening this interesting discussion,

  2. Here is the link to the article I talked about.
    Preschool:The Best Job-Training Program

  3. Sam,
    Thanks for your comment. It goes to the heart of things. We must begin to measure more of what matters to youth and their development as well as to their likely success in various future roles. Test scores are important but not sufficient. The type of things you note - connections, safety, caring adults, etc. -- are important enough to measure and measurable enough to use as indicators of progress at a system and policy level. The key going forward in my view is getting agreement on what we wish to really ensure and then measuring them and driving our work to improve them.
    The key is less about measuring these concepts on each youth for diagnostic purposes. I hope we do not get to the point that we just label individual youth as disconnected, etc. Rather, we need to use youth measurements at various higher levels to ensure that what we are doing as an organization, system, community is reaching young people in meaningful ways. The purpose is not to put numbers to youth instead of relationships but to have numbers about youth that help us improve what we are doing as a whole to support their success.
    What level of data, as well as what types of data, do others think is the right place to focus?

  4. Sam and Dale - thanks for kicking off what I hope becomes a rich conversation - either through this blog or through other venues. When I think of conversations about measurement in relation to children and youth, I always start at the beginning with the "what" question. And here I mean the big "what" question - not what use will we make of the data - that comes into this conversation but later, but what is it we trying to do that measurement will inform.
    Sam's reference is extremely appropriate here. We seem in our country to default now to thinking that the reason we support children and youth in their development is to ensure that, one by one, they have employable skills and can support themselves as adults. We focus on the individual and on the world of work. This seems to be accepted without question across our country and the article Sam referenced clearly demonstrates that the frame has its uses.
    I hope that we can at least balance that frame with the frame used in many other countries, as well as our Tribal Nations - the frame that child/youth matter because they will take on "nation-building" as they move into adulthood. They will need to ensure we have a working society, that our communities are strong, that democracy continues and is strengthened. I actually hope this could become our primary frame but would settle for a balance between individual/business and community/nation-building.
    So, as we think about measurement, I go back to the working meeting held here in MN and sponsored in part by the Center, on measurement of contributions by youth. Not that I think we use those measurements to provide the value of youth in our community, but rather, to emphasize through the use of such measurement, that contributing is highly valued, so we will measure it to learn how to support and grow youth's capacity in that area.