Can You Measure Value?

Winter 2018

By Bonnie Ricci

What do we value? This essential question is often a topic of conversation in independent school board rooms, faculty meetings, and student class meetings—and for good reason. 

A school’s answer to this question—to the extent that it can be codified in clear, affirming language—should serve as the basis for everything from lunchroom offerings to long-term strategic priorities. It is a question that impacts all constituencies in the independent school universe: students, families, faculty, staff, administrators, and board members. 

And while the core tenets of what a school values should be relatively stable over time, schools should continue to revisit this question periodically. Defining your school’s values will reinforce the commitment to fundamental principles that align with your mission and affirm the value proposition for your individual school—both of which are essential outcomes in an increasingly demanding and narrowing market.

A school’s values must be broadly held, clearly outlined, and carefully assessed. Many schools have mastered the first two, but they have a way to go when it comes to assessing whether daily practices align with their values. 

Let’s assume, for the sake of example, that a fictitious School X has clearly stated its values in the following way: 
  • Students at School X are engaged.
  • Students at School X are prepared for the unknowable future.
  • Students at School X have a sense of purpose.
Leaders at School X must then determine whether they are practicing what they preach—whether the daily activities in which students engage are effectively promoting the values as they are defined. In other words, would students at School X agree that they feel engaged, are prepared for the future, and have a purpose? Or would they characterize their school days as boring and irrelevant? 

How do we know whether School X is living up to its values? The answer is surprisingly simple, and yet many schools fail to do it: Ask the students.

How to Measure What You Value

We all have heard the oft-repeated imperative to measure what we value. This directive receives much attention when standardized testing ends up in the educational crosshairs. 

During the Industrial Revolution it was essential that schools prepared the future workforce for low-skill assembly line jobs. This imperative resulted in a routinized, mechanistic, and standardized approach to education. But we are in a different world now. The Information Age, with its ubiquitous access to content, has led to an increasingly complex and unpredictable landscape. Therefore, our schools must prepare students to be adaptable and nimble, and to work effectively across sectors in multidisciplinary teams. Cross-function, multidiscipline, and global are the words that will rule the future.

Today’s teachers can share numerous ways in which their lessons and courses provide opportunities for students to engage in real-world, authentic problems. You’ll hear about inquiry-based lessons, service learning, and project-based learning. To be clear, these approaches are worthwhile. But are these approaches generating opportunities for students to feel engaged, prepared, and purposeful on a regular basis? Are these projects the exception or the norm?

When researchers from the Yale University Center for Emotional Intelligence asked 22,000 high school students how they felt at school in 2015, the most common responses were tired, stressed,
and bored

Part of the problem, according to Susan Engel, a senior lecturer in psychology at Williams College, is our country’s misguided view of the purpose of schooling. In her book, The End of the Rainbow: How Educating for Happiness (Not Money) Would Transform Our Schools, she argues that we have structured our education system around the value of money. This is particularly true for middle-class and privileged children who, Engel argues, “are pushed to view every stage of their schooling as a platform for some future accomplishment ending in wealth. This deprives them of the chance to figure out what they really care about, how to think about complex topics with open minds, and how to find a sense of purpose in life.” 

To ensure this isn’t happening at your school, you need to measure how effectively you are teaching
what you say you value. Here’s how:
Be specific about what you value. Go deeper than just feel-good wording. Ask “What does student engagement look like? What does student engagement feel like?” Have students participate in the task of defining engagement. A student-generated list might look something like this: As students we are engaged when we lose track of time, would rather do this than something else fun, don’t want to stop working, feel energy and excitement during an activity, are “in the flow.”
Create a visual reminder by posting these lists in every classroom. Deliberately incorporate this language into faculty meetings and the faculty evaluation process. Having a clear description of the specifics behind what your school values provides a foundation upon which you can collect valid and reliable data. 
Poll students. The Socrative Teacher app can be used to collect feedback from students. The Exit Ticket feature enables the account administrator to invite students to provide feedback after the school day. A sample Exit Ticket question might ask students to rate their overall level of engagement during the school day: 5 would represent “highly engaged” and 1 would represent “often bored and disengaged.” Other yes/no questions might ask whether the student lost track of time, felt “in the flow,” or didn’t want to leave a class when the bell rang. The Socrative Teacher app can also be used to ask teachers to assess the degree to which they felt that their lessons were engaging. 

Results may prove humbling. Faculty should be encouraged to strive for improvement and celebrate small victories. Some will be reluctant to embrace the truths that may come from the data: that we are not doing a great job at reinforcing these values on a daily basis. But the best part of data analysis is the opportunities in the results; data can spur change. 
Shadow a student. In a compelling post on his blog “Granted, and …,” the late assessment guru Grant Wiggins invokes the words of a veteran high school teacher, later revealed to be his daughter, who decided to shadow a student for two days. One of the teacher’s key takeaways is that “high school students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90 percent of their classes.” 

It is one thing for a teacher to hear this statistic. It is completely different to have the mind-numbing experience of shadowing a student and feeling firsthand what the school day is like. You won’t regret following a student, and it will make you cognizant of ways your school community can better align actions with values. (For more information, visit
Celebrate the good and strive for the best. Little victories here and there add up to authentic, consistent, and meaningful student engagement. Build capacity for self-reflection and forward momentum by celebrating faculty accomplishments publicly and frequently. The principles of appreciative inquiry may provide a useful framework for praising these accomplishments while also pushing toward positive change. 

Schools must clarify their values, and define them in ways that allow for measurement. Once defined, thoughtful data collection and analysis will identify strengths, expose weaknesses, and reveal assumptions.

Designing Improvements

Part of what contributes to students feeling disengaged is that they are unsure of the why behind what they are learning. The content feels disconnected and irrelevant. This is especially true when students are all too aware that they can find the answers in a matter of seconds on their cell phones. 

To be clear, not every lesson will be completely engaging for all students. But when the why is known, students are much more willing to delve deeply into a complex (and boring) spreadsheet. The spreadsheet becomes an essential tool in their quest to solve a real-world problem that interests them.

At the Christina Seix Academy (NJ), faculty members help students delve deeply into work that has meaning beyond their individual circumstances. Christina Seix Academy (CSA) is an urban pre-K to 8 independent day
school in Trenton for students from low-income families. It holds true to its founder’s vision to “work hard, stay humble, dream big, and pay it forward.” 

Faculty members help students identify issues and causes in their immediate neighborhood that resonate with them as individuals. Faculty view themselves as data collectors, designing opportunities for students to engage with others outside school walls. For example, CSA students met with Trenton mayor’s chief of staff, Francis Blanco. She opened the conversation by highlighting a number of city initiatives designed to improve the living conditions of the community. The CSA students were particularly drawn to the issue of vacant houses, and asked Blanco specific questions about what the city could do to address vacant homes and neglectful absentee landlords. Throughout the conversation, students were eager to provide creative and thoughtful solutions that would enhance their community. This conversation allowed students to discuss an issue that was directly relevant to their lives, and engage with and learn from a local leader who is actively working to improve the community. More than simply a problem-solving opportunity, this conversation “served to deepen students’ sense of agency and increased their understanding of the obstacles that can impede the implementation of real-world solutions,” according to Rob Connor, CSA head of school. 

The real work happens when faculty turn over the interaction to the students. During these conversations, faculty take notes and observe what captures the students’ interest. What questions are they asking? What do they want to learn more about? What is resonating with them? These interactions provide meaningful data and set the stage for students to become social entrepreneurs.

But before they can become social entrepreneurs, students must be “drawn to issues that are urgent and relevant to their lives,” Connor says. “The role of the school is to determine what conditions best support students in studying, creating, and developing social change. As adults we need to broaden the students’ exposure to issues. Kids jump right into any opportunity where they can be problem-solvers. This is especially true when the problem exists in their own lives or in their own communities.”

In Connor’s view, too many schools view the makerspace as the starting point for generating ideas. Connor would rather first get kids outside the school and talking to people in the community. Those interactions build empathy and urgency as they identify problems. Once the problem has been identified, then the makerspace (known as the Social Innovation Lab at CSA) becomes a powerful tool for students to chart their own path and become change agents. 

Developing and iterating programs that align with what schools value and allow students to feel a sense of purpose in their work is an essential follow-up to the initial data collection phase. A commitment to ongoing data collection will help ensure that a school’s values are elevated beyond just words on a page or a lofty statement over a portico. The values will be demonstrably reflected daily for all to see, and the school will have the data to prove it.
Bonnie Ricci

Bonnie Ricci is assistant executive director of the Association of Independent Schools in New England.