Counting What Counts: Five Dilemmas Facing Education

In his new book,, Dr. Yong Zhao challenges our current approach to student success measurement and proposes a new paradigm, one that is focused on personalized and authentic learning.
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This is a guest post by Dr. Helen Janc Malone, Director of Institutional Advancement and National Director, Education Policy Fellowship Program at the Institute for Educational Leadership.

In his new book, Counting What Counts: Reframing Education Outcomes, Dr. Yong Zhao challenges our current approach to student success measurement and proposes a new paradigm, one that is focused on personalized and authentic learning.

Dr. Zhao posits that the overemphasis on testing has moved the United States away from broader discussions on the purposes of education, the importance of embracing diversity, and the need to cultivate creativity and entrepreneurship. He noted five dilemmas facing the U.S. education as part of the American Educational Research Association/Institute for Educational Leadership lecture series.

Homogenizing vs. diversifying. Dr. Zhao argues that the existing U.S. accountability system can be characterized as one that is deficit-driven (overemphasizing gaps), standardized in its testing, and prescriptive in its curriculum. It is isolating in its practice, with classrooms continuing to operate as islands with teachers receiving 'just-in-case' teaching support. He argues that the existing assessment system is designed to measure mediocrity, where all students need to meet standardized criteria that do not speak to their unique skills, abilities, competencies, or potential. It is not a system to support greatness. He warns that what the existing accountability system perpetuates is sameness, instead of embracing intellectual diversity and pluralism of ideas.

Short-term vs. long-term. Much of the education reform focus, Dr. Zhao warns, is on meeting short-term outcomes -- have students made progress on their test scores? We tend to be less concerned about the long-term implications of our short-term strategies. Unlike the medical profession, education rarely discusses the intended and unintended consequences of our interventions, or as Dr. Zhao calls them, education side effects. Yet, mounting evidence suggested that overemphasis on testing cuts into holistic curriculum, creativity, and diverse forms of learning and expression. Thus, he asks the education community to closely examine the possible long-term side effects of standardized testing on student engagement in learning, on curiosity, and on students' individual confidence. He challenges us to rethink education with an emphasis on learning, not on test taking skills.

Academic vs. nonacademic. Much of existing education reform, Dr. Zhao explains, has been in service of improving academic outcomes, such as reading, writing, math, and science. However, a growing body of research is widening the conversation to include nonacademic measures. Some have called such measures 21st Century skills, noncognitive, or a growth mindset. Each captures a broader set of 'nonacademic' skills and competences that interplay with academic success, such as teamwork or problems solving. Although the 'nonacademic' skills are not well defined, and there is lack of consensus of what to call these types of skills, there is growing recognition that educators ought to take a strengths-based, asset-driven approach to student learning, emphasizing social intelligence and critical thinking, in addition to the academic content, as both are necessary for postsecondary success.

Measurable vs. unmeasurable. The existing assessment system emphasizes testing to the lowest common denominator, whether the standardized tests are for K-12 or college entrance purposes. And, what is measured is what matters to policymakers, thus, perpetuating the cycles of testing and emphasis on a narrow, pre-determined set of skills and competences. Yet, Dr. Zhao argues, it is evident from the rising emphasis on nonacademic skills that not everything that counts is measured. We need better and new instruments to capture nonacademic measures that tell us a fully picture about our students.

Instructional vs. educational. Public schools continue to operate in isolated classroom structures, emphasizing instructional outcomes over instilling in students a sense of lifelong learning. What Dr. Zhao calls for instead, is a shift toward educational outcomes whereby teachers become 'curators in a museum of learning.' He argues that education ought to be student-centered and student-driven, with students taking ownership for their learning, and engaging in authentic learning experiences that prepare them for lifelong learning. This is particularly important in the global society, where the pace of change is rapid and career opportunities ever-transforming and evolving.

Dr. Zhao concluded that the purposes of education ought not to be narrowly defined by where we are today, but rather, to prepare students for the [unknown] future -- and for that, we need to engage in collaboration with our students and to nurture their individual potential as authentic learners.

Given that the reauthorization of ESEA includes both academic and non-academic indicators in its accountability framework, how do you see the new law changing the conversation on student success?

Dr. Yong Zhao, Presidential Chair and Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education, University of Oregon College of Education, spoke in December 2015 at the AERA/IEL Luncheon Series on his new book Counting What Counts: Reframing Education Outcomes (Solution Tree Press, 2015).

The AERA/IEL Luncheon series, launched in mid-1980s, is a monthly lecture series featuring renowned scholars and practitioners focused on salient issues in education policy. To get on the mailing list for the Washington DC-based series, please email

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