Coming to Schools: Creativity Indexes

January 31, 2012 9 min read
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At a time when U.S. political and business leaders are raising concerns about the need to better nurture creativity and innovative thinking among young people, several states are exploring the development of an index that would gauge the extent to which schools provide opportunities to foster those qualities.

In Massachusetts, a new state commission began meeting last fall to draft recommendations for such an index for all public schools, in response to a legislative requirement. Meanwhile, a California Senate panel last month approved a bill calling for the development of a voluntary Creative and Innovative Education Index. And Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin recently announced plans for a public-private partnership to produce the Oklahoma Innovative Index for schools, which she described as a “public measurement of the opportunities for our students to engage in innovative work.”

Gov. Fallin couched the plan squarely in an economic context to advance the state’s competitiveness and prepare young people for the workforce. The index, the Republican said, would prove a “very valuable tool to help Oklahoma be a national leader in innovation, critical thinking, and entrepreneurship.”

Advocates say the idea is to promote a better balance in the curriculum, as well as campus offerings before and after school, especially in the era of high-stakes testing in reading and math.

“We’re tapping into a very clear need, as expressed particularly by employers, to reincorporate into the curriculum and school experience many opportunities for young people to develop creativity-oriented skills,” said Massachusetts Sen. Stan Rosenberg, a Democrat and the lead sponsor of his chamber’s 2010 bill calling for the index.

The Massachusetts legislation calls for an index that would “rate every public school on teaching, encouraging, and fostering creativity in students” and be based “in part on the creative opportunities in each school.”

It cites as examples arts education, debate clubs, science fairs, filmmaking, and independent research.

Many advocates acknowledge the challenges of creating an index that doesn’t turn into a mere checklist or become viewed as punitive.

Alicia A. Priest, the vice president of the Oklahoma Education Association, expressed mixed feelings about the concept.

“We are very interested in the idea, but the devil is in the details,” she said. She noted concerns about using the approach to publicly measure schools, and even prefers to call the mechanism a “framework” instead of an index.

“If it’s going to be something used as punitive, or even the appearance of, ‘You’re not good enough,’ then that’s not OK,” Ms. Priest said.

Risky Business?

The emerging state efforts to promote creativity and innovation among their students pick up on a theme that’s been gaining steam for some time in American political, business, and education circles.

“Building capacity to create and innovate in our students is central to guaranteeing the nation’s competitiveness,” declared the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in a report last year.

In addition, fostering creativity has become a high priority among some of the United States’ top economic competitors. In a recent Education Week Commentary, Byong-man Ahn, a former South Korean minister of education, said that “creating the type of education in which creativity is emphasized over rote learning” is a top education goal for his government. (“Education in the Republic of Korea,” Jan. 12, 2012.)

Researchers have recently examined the subject of teaching creativity, but experts are just beginning to determine what makes some students more creative than their peers and how the classroom environment can nurture, or smother, that capacity.

In fact, some emerging research seems to point to two critical aspects of creativity that can be hard to teach: the willingness to take risks and learn from failure, and the ability to transfer ways of solving problems between seemingly unrelated situations. (“Science Looks at How to Inspire Creativity,” Dec. 14, 2011.)

Robert J. Sternberg, the provost and a professor of psychology and education at Oklahoma State University, who is an expert in intelligence-testing and has studied creativity extensively, said he’s encouraged by Oklahoma’s interest in developing an innovation index. He said it’s important for schools to teach creative thinking, and developing some form of accountability around that is a good idea.

But, in an email, he cautioned that there are risks.

For example, “We don’t want an index that trivializes creativity, such as by counting numbers of activities that, on their surface, sound creative rather than exploring what is actually done in the activities to encourage creativity,” he wrote. Also, “We don’t want to encourage quantity over quality of activities.”

The apparent originator and a leading proponent of the index idea is Daniel R. Hunter, a playwright and founding partner of a Boston-based public relations firm who previously served as the director of Iowa’s cultural-affairs department.

“This is not an effort to overthrow standardized testing,” but rather “to provide schools with incentives to spend more time and resources” fostering student creativity, said Mr. Hunter, who also previously led a Massachusetts advocacy group for arts and culture that has disbanded.

“If the only public measurement of your school is a standardized test, then schools have every incentive to teach to the test,” he said. “The index is a tool to get to what is happening in the classroom.”

The Massachusetts commission has met twice in recent months to explore what’s being called there the Creative Challenge Index.

“Our charge is to figure out what the index should be and how it would be implemented,” said Jonathan C. Rappaport, a commission member and the executive director of Arts/Learning, a nonprofit group based in Natick, Mass. “We’re only in the beginning stages.”

But he and others stressed that the idea is far different from the state’s testing system: The focus of the proposed index is “inputs,” not “outputs.”

“This is really to measure inputs, to show what opportunities kids have in their school day,” Mr. Rappaport said.

And he said it’s not simply about identifying classes or activities, but also the extent to which they actually encourage creativity.

“Just taking a music class doesn’t mean you’re going to be creative,” he said.

Mr. Rappaport said the state may identify a handful of school districts that want to experiment with the idea on a pilot basis.

“We have to implement it in stages,” he said.

He and other commission members say they are keenly aware of the dangers of crafting an oversimplified index that fails to adequately reflect opportunities for creativity, or that fosters the wrong incentives.

Susan Y. Wheltle, the director of literacy and humanities for the Massachusetts education department, said that at the most recent meeting, commission members “had a very thoughtful discussion of how [the index] might be helpful in some ways and damaging in others.”

She said: “Certainly, publishing ratings is one way that calls attention to a problem, but people also knew from their experience in schools how damaging it could be to say to the community, ‘Look, this is somebody who rates very low on the scale.’ ”

Action to carry out the Massachusetts legislation has been slow, with the deadline for developing recommendations having been extended twice. But state officials say that with the commission members now all named—a joint process involving the governor and the state Senate and House—work is getting under way.

Ms. Wheltle and others say it would take further action by lawmakers, however, to require that an index be implemented.

Paul Toner, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said he welcomes the idea of an index as advancing a “multiple measures” approach to evaluating schools.

“We see it as a way to get away from focusing on one or two test scores,” he said, to “broaden the focus of what schools should be paying attention to: the whole child.”

‘Inspect What We Expect’

In Oklahoma, members have yet to be named to the panel that is to develop the index.

Susan E. McCalmont, the president of Creative Oklahoma, a nonprofit group helping to spearhead the undertaking, said a lot of questions remain.

“The work of the task force will be looking at how to set up parameters to measure,” she said, and how to report that information to the public.

She noted that Oklahoma recently rolled out a system of letter grades for schools based mainly on test scores, and suggested that the results of the innovation index might be included along with those grades in school report cards, but in a different fashion.

“We do not want to do a letter grade, and we haven’t decided if we’re going to do a number, but it will be something easily understood, so this school is further ahead in [fostering] creativity and innovation than another,” Ms. McCalmont said. “But it’s not a tool intended to be punitive.”

“To date,” she said, “there’s been measurement of everything else, but this was not on the table.”

There already appears to be some division, however, on key aspects of the idea, including whether the index would be mandatory for public schools. Ms. McCalmont said she envisions that approach.

Gov. Fallin did not explicitly address the issue in her speech announcing the plan, but seemed to suggest it would be far-reaching.

“We’re going to have an index, we’re going to inspect what we expect in our schools,” she said. “Schools will be recognized for their innovation indexes.”

Phyllis Hudecki, Oklahoma’s secretary of education and a member of the governor’s cabinet, suggested that requiring participation might be a mistake.

“I don’t foresee a mandate,” she said, arguing that educators already feel burdened with the “continuous piling-on of requirements, and now we want you also to include creativity and innovation? They look at you like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ ”

Also, while the governor described the effort as designed to “measure” what schools are doing to promote creativity, Ms. Hudecki downplayed that notion.

“ ‘Measuring’ may be too strong a word,” she said, emphasizing that much remains to be decided.

“We don’t have any meat on the bones yet,” she said.

Meanwhile, the California bill, approved Jan. 19 by the Senate appropriations committee, was slated for full Senate consideration by the end of January. It’s similar to the Massachusetts measure, but is explicitly identified as a voluntary index. Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, vetoed a version without that stipulation, included in a broader bill, last year.

Joe Landon, the executive director of the California Alliance for Arts Education, a strong backer of the bill, said he prefers that the index be mandatory, but said that wouldn’t be politically feasible.

“When it’s a mandate, then everybody has to respond, but in these economic times, that’s not going to happen,” he said. “We need to start somewhere, and this is a good place to start.”

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Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2012 edition of Education Week as Coming to Schools: Creativity Indexes

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