Measure for Measure


[Due to my own technical ineptitude, a version of this posting originally published here on March 28, 2016 subsequently disappeared. I’m reposting it now (thanks to the technical aptitude of Justin Carone) because education researcher Angela Duckworth has become an even more visible media presence since her book came out a few weeks ago, and “grit” thus a wider and in my view, still more troubling cultural commitment.]


Who among us has never been tempted to calculate their Body Mass Index? It’s irresistible: A scientific measure of our health and self-discipline, of our success (or abject failure) at dieting and exercise! Yet, many researchers have by now made it clear that BMI is a very poor predictor of health and longevity: Not wrong in every single case, but only coincidentally right, because BMI is highly selective in both its use of evidence and ideas of causality. Crucially, like every metric of the human condition, BMI is a measurement that supports very specific criteria of good health and behavior…in this case, including narrowed ideas of attractiveness and historically racialized ideas of virtue and self-restraint. In short, BMI is an instrument with a cultural history. Like all instruments.

I have been thinking about BMI today because in yesterday’s New York Times [March 26, 2016], Angela Duckworth expressed concern about new applications of some numerical instruments that she has devised. A quantitative education researcher, Duckworth says she is particularly worried about the misuse of metrics she has produced in recent years for the assessment of student “character.” These are means of ranking each student’s individual capacity to fulfill the behavioral and academic demands of our educational system, to display “self-control” and “zest for learning,” for example. School districts are now beginning to incorporate her “measures of character” into high-stakes accountability systems, Duckworth writes, and she is deeply dismayed by this, worried about a loss of nuance and narrowed applications of her approach. I appreciate her concern, but I find her surprise at this turn of events to be…well, surprising. Like BMI and all other means of sorting and comparing people, the measurement of student character traits derives from cultural priorities which such measurements then help support. For all her apparent attention to cultural and social milieu, Duckworth seems not to acknowledge this fundamental feature of social science.

In an effort to understand the roles played by self-confidence, gratitude, and other types of “intrinsic motivation” in patterns of student success, Duckworth has refined ways of detecting and measuring those traits. She now worries that schools will be gauged on the levels of such characteristics detected (using her instruments) in their students. She fears that this move will obfuscate the complex social conditions in which such character traits take shape in and gain meaning for students. For example, her research indicates that students’ own sense of effort matters for their continued performance in school. But that factor must be addressed in context, she warns here, because similar self-assessments may reflect very different student experiences. That is: students’ sense of their own conscientiousness could remain low not just in poorly run classrooms where they receive little support or guidance in cultivating such efficacy, but also in classrooms where the standards for academic achievement are quite high.

For those using Duckworth’s metrics, that’s certainly a valid warning about a logical pothole lying in the path of data analysis. But I want to reframe the problem. As is BMI, I think Duckworth’s instruments are built for precisely the purposes to which they are now being put: “Revealing” a spectrum of human conditions and “finding” flawed or inadequate subjects at one end of it. She is surprised that a ranking of student endowments intended to help “cultivate self-discovery” (as she puts it) is instead now supporting crude evaluations of school performance in the service of narrowed ideas of accountability. But how could this not be the case? There is not some other kind of accountability operating in our educational system.

I would suggest to Duckworth that it is only in a world where existing social structures must always be protected from critique, where one’s academic difficulties must be attributed not to social structures and ideologies but to oneself, or to one’s parents, teachers and school, that the measurement of student “character traits” makes any sense.

Such metrics are designed to find, and do find, sturdy and weak, willing and unwilling learners. Comparative measures of student conduct also seek and therefore find good and bad pedagogy. Emphatically, they do not seek and thus do not find crowded classrooms, underfunded districts, and underpaid teachers. They do not seek and thus do not find families that are struggling with shrinking wages, costly child and health care, and encroaching poverty, societal problems that all place extraordinary daily burdens on children. Duckworth might well believe that her instruments can point to means of better supporting students with “low” levels of desirable intrinsic traits, but unfortunately they will only ever reproduce the sorts of individual blame and responsibility that her metrics render legible.

To look at character is thus not to broaden the “narrow focus on achievement” installed by standardized testing, a broadening to which Duckworth says she has aspired in her work. Rather it is to reiterate the definition of student success as a mustering of self-control and energy, an adjustment to the circumstance in which one finds oneself rather than a radical reshaping of those circumstances. It is also, in some sense, to produce inadequacies of student character, just as BMI produces instances of obesity. UMD researcher Stephen Secules, in probing the nature of American educational inequities, incisively prompts us to ask, “Must every classroom have a weakest student?” If we keep entering classrooms with means of comparing and measuring individual students as such, the precise purpose for Duckworth’s instruments have been devised, the answer will always be “yes.”



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