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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Wanted: A Multiple Intelligences Theory for School Quality

For 35 years, Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (MI Theory) has reassured us that people are more than the sum of any intelligence test. MI Theory has found special resonance among educators, who every day see tremendous variation in what students do well and where they struggle.

In addition to helping us understand individuals, MI Theory may also be instructive for how we understand schools. After all, schools are like the students they serve: complex, dynamic, constantly changing. Why, then, do we persist in measuring school quality like IQ, pooling seemingly divergent metrics into a single letter or number?

The allure of a single letter or number is clear. It makes the complex simple, cutting through a thicket of data to offer an easy-to-understand summary. But these virtues are also shortcomings. Put plainly, the world is not a simple place, and we inhibit our ability to navigate its complexity when we apply oversimplified filters to complex things.

The tendency toward simplified measurement is hardly new, as a cursory look back at the history of intelligence testing shows. More than a century ago, Charles Spearman observed positive correlations across a range of children’s outcomes in seemingly unrelated academic subjects and hypothesized the existence of “general intelligence” (or g). Spearman’s g presumed that human intelligence was a single spectrum along which people could be systematically categorized.

For decades, the number used to categorize people by intelligence has been their “intelligence quotient” or IQ, popularized by Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman and his Stanford-Binet test, now in its fifth edition. In a guide to the test published in 1937, Terman dismissed the idea that intelligence could be broken into its component parts, writing, “The assumption that it is easier to measure a part, or one aspect, of intelligence than all of it, is fallacious in that the parts …are interwoven and intertwined.” Despite many challenges – including those pointing out the underlying racism of Terman’s test – the notion of general intelligence endured more or less intact for decades.

The fortress of g began to crack when Howard Gardner published Frames of Mind in 1983. In contrast to Terman’s conviction that intelligence “cannot be separated” into its component parts, MI theory took the exact opposite view: namely, that intelligence was too complex not to be broken into its component parts. These parts consisted of seven (later revised to eight) distinct intelligences. In addition, MI theory asserted that all individuals possessed all eight intelligences and that no individual possessed the exact same composition of intelligences as anyone else. In short, people are not simple.

Quote: "Reducing schools to a single number obscures both what they are best at and what they need to improve upon."

The traditional way of measuring intelligence and the contemporary way of measuring school quality have notable similarities. Much like Spearman and Terman, education policymakers and researchers today look at diverse measures of schools – like standardized test scores, graduation rates, and teacher licensure percentages – and collect them under the banner of “school quality,” a single spectrum along which schools are systematically categorized, with “good schools” at one end and “failing schools” at the other.

The shortcomings of g are also shortcomings of school quality measurement. By blurring various aptitudes together, g muddied our ability to describe the complexity of human intelligence. Similarly, an undifferentiated concept of school quality fails to capture a lot of what families, students, and teachers say they care most about – things like professional community, cultural responsiveness, and civic engagement. By measuring general intelligence using a single measure like IQ, Terman and others overlooked a lot of what made people intelligent and belied the very idea that they could improve. Similarly, reducing schools to a single number obscures both what they are best at and what they need to improve upon.

Finally, like intelligence testing, school quality measurement is beset by bias and marked by inequity. Standardized tests, graduation rates, and many other metrics are correlated with student demographics, meaning that the annual state accountability reports based on these metrics tell us more about who attends schools than about the schools themselves.

Just as many of us now embrace the idea of multiple intelligences, it is time we also embrace the idea of multi-dimensional school quality. Notably, this concept is currently being piloted by six school districts here in Massachusetts. Rather than trying to populate a mythical “general school quality” factor with more data, the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA) is studying and trying to better understand the varied dimensions that make schools unique. Rather than rating schools and school districts on a faulty premise, we should celebrate the full complexity of all schools.


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