Some forms of learning defy measurement; that’s OK

In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy gave a speech at the University of Kansas where he lamented the shortcomings of conventional measures of national vitality.

[T]he gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

Kennedy was acknowledging a feeling in his young audience that beneath the rosy economic indicators of late-’60s America lay a “poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all.”

Mercifully, he did not conclude his remarks with a pledge to impanel a team of economists and psychometricians to develop a National Joy of Play Index.

Unfortunately, some education reformers appear poised to fall into a that sort of trap.

In a new interview with The 74, Tim Knowles, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, describes the flaws of the Carnegie Unit, an early 20th Century attempt to standardize a unit of study in American universities based on the amount of time students spend in class.

The Carnegie Unit, which remains the coin of the realm in secondary and postsecondary education, equates time with learning and fails to capture important aspects of students’ personal and intellectual development.

Worse, it’s created harmful distortions in education practice, keeping students confined to seven-period schedules inside the four walls of school building, robbing them of deeper learning and opportunities to develop meaningful relationships. It leads schools to neglect the value of the learning students experience outside school—at home, on the job, or in the woods. As Knowles puts it, “We’ve had neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists and psychologists and learning scientists come along and say, ‘People learn through solving real problems, they learn from peers, they learn from mentors, they learn in apprenticeship, they learn from experience.'”

The diagnosis is spot on. The trouble comes when he proposes as part of the solution a new suite of measurement tools.

We’re going to build assessments to assess the skills, not the disciplinary knowledge, that we know are predictive of success. Things like your ability to collaborate, to communicate, how hard you work, are you persistent, your creative thinking, your critical thinking. The aim with (Educational Testing Service) would be to get to the point where every young person in America doesn’t just graduate from high school with a transcript that has grades and attendance and test scores, but a skills transcript as well.

The goal is to make the breadth of students’ experiences—hardships they’ve overcome, collaborative projects they’ve undertaken—”legible” to colleges.

That word, legible, will ring familiar to readers of James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State. In it, he describes the systems of measurement, and accompanying worldview, that aided the development of modern nation-states. Government officials would assess forests not by their beauty or biodiversity, but by the number of board-feet of timber they could produce.

These forms of standardized measurement were critical to building many things we now take for granted. The Carnegie Unit itself was critical to the proliferation of higher education. But the fact that it lives on today, creating harmful distortions to education practice, should give pause to efforts to create new forms of measurement designed to render qualities such as perseverance or creativity legible to large swaths of institutions.

At the same time, in the interview, Knowles makes another crucial point that many critics of standardization in education should grapple with. There are core elements of student learning that can be measured, and that are critical to students’ success.

The question now should be: What is the goal of that measurement? One potential way to avoid re-creating the distorting effects of the Carnegie Unit would be to rethink the audience for the measures themselves.

What if the goal of measurement were no longer to render different dimensions of students’ multifaceted learning and development legible to a number of large, impersonal institutions, but instead to give students and families and the educators who work most closely with them tools they could use to set their own objectives and measure progress?

This would stave off a lapse into nihilism and acknowledge that measurement remains a critical part of education practice. It might also force the leaders of institutions to confront the reality that young people have diverse goals, interests, needs and talents, some of which, like the joy of children’s play or the beauty of a poem, defy measurement but nonetheless matter.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)