MEASURING WHAT WE VALUE

by | Mar 29, 2024

Bob Moses
Foreword by Ben Moynihan
Internal Memo to the We the People – Math Literacy for All Alliance
June 4th, 2017

In 2017, Bob Moses was part of a group that helped catalyze the national “We the People – Math Literacy for All Alliance.” A collaboration among organizations, institutions, professional networks, schools, and individuals dedicated to championing math literacy for everyone in the nation, i.e., “We the People.” 1 The Alliance took form through organizing efforts spearheaded by Bob, the Algebra Project, the Young People’s Project, the Southern Initiative Algebra Project, and the Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville – propelled by many more organizations, institutions, and individuals, and with key support from the National Science Foundation INCLUDES program (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science). Bob would write periodic memos of his late-night thoughts and we’d send them out to the group.

Nearly seven years have passed since he wrote this memo, long since that particular NSF award concluded, and yet, just like the We the People – Math Literacy for All Alliance itself, this memo’s relevance and urgency have only continued to grow with time. Bob’s impassioned plea to reassess the nation’s approaches to educational assessment – and to interrogate what we value in K-12 math learning – strikes a chord that resonates deeply in today’s educational landscape.

As we navigate the evolving challenges inherent in raising the floor of K-12 math literacy, Bob’s words are a guiding light, urging us all to try to generate a consensus about how best to confront the entrenched disparities that persist within the nation’s education systems. By bringing this memo back to light, let’s reaffirm our commitment to a broader vision of equitable education and math literacy for all that Bob framed so eloquently many years ago. Together, let us heed his call to action and strive to create a more just and inclusive educational landscape for future generations.


– Ben Moynihan, Executive Director

I was part of an Educational Testing Service (ETS) workshop not too long ago in which Shirley Malcom of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)2 raised the distinction between “Valuing what we Measure” and “Measuring what we Value.” When you value what you measure, it too often means that we default to measuring what we already know how to measure, not necessarily what matters. If, however, we are willing to consider what it might look like to measure what we value, then it raises critical questions of how to measure what matters most in achieving the goals we, as an Alliance, want to achieve in teaching and learning and why – things that require that we broaden the conversation to include a broader set of principles that take us far beyond those asked when we traditionally talk about assessment.

One thing we know for sure: The Alliance we are working to get off the ground will be operating within Public Education Systems which “Value what they Measure.” However, within the Alliance, we are beginning to consider how others, such as the Big Picture Learning (BPL) network3, have pushed back to recruit public schools that are free to “Measure what they value.”

I would surmise that schools like those in the BPL network are joining the Alliance precisely because while there is a good deal of consensus nationally about what to test students on in mathematics, there is no consensus about what to value in the teaching and learning of mathematics that equips all students for life and work in the 21st century. I suspect that these BPL schools are hopeful that the Alliance will provide, if not fully developed solutions to this conundrum, structured opportunities to work on such solutions. Working across the Alliance, we could collectively disrupt what has become an all too comfortable consensus about which students should be able to access mathematics and what that access means to their future as well as that of the nation.

There is arguably no conundrum more central to the vision and work of the Alliance than the above. Why? Because an enormous consequence of Public School Systems which operate to “Value what they Measure” is the contribution that this narrow vision of teaching, learning and assessment makes to feeding our nation’s vastly overpopulated federal and state prisons and local jails. And history – when fully told – tells a tragic and ironically recurring story about who gets included when we, as a nation, say “we the people” and who does not. It is a national conundrum that our Alliance must confront – because it stands behind our collective “why” – otherwise we get stuck valuing what we measure rather than measuring what we value.

A national example: Note that during the era of the Korean and Vietnam wars, draft deferment tests, based on valuing what we measure, had consequences which should have resulted in a constitutional conundrum for the nation but did not: The cutoff score on the draft deferment test was 70. While 73% of college students in New England made the cutoff, only 42% of “Southerners” made the cutoff. The news was never “leaked.”4 By focusing on what they could measure – academic skills – and not what they might consider valuing – equal access for “we the people” – the nation let a “test” decide who would be exposed to war and death and who would not.

This concept paper is a call for all participants in the Alliance to articulate one or two things they value and which they think should be part of what the Alliance also values. It is also a call for some among us to commit to collecting and circulating these statements and constitute themselves as a committee to report their findings to the Alliance when it next assembles.

For example, I am reminded that Joeseph Hovater from the Union BPL High School in Nampa, ID, stated more than once at the recent NSF INCLUDES Conference in St. Louis that what he values and sees as what BPL also values is “Identity and Vision.”

  1. 2022 We the People – Math Literacy for All Alliance virtual national conference, https://algebra.org//2022-conference/ ↩︎
  2. Dr. Shirley M. Malcom, Senior Advisor to the CEO, and Director SEA Change initiative, American Association for the Advancement of Science, https://www.aaas.org/person/shirley-malcom ↩︎
  3. Big Picture Learning, https://www.bigpicture.org/ ↩︎
  4. Nicholas Lemann, 1999. The Big Test: The secret history of the American Meritocracy, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, p.72 – 79. ↩︎

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