A few days back, Education Week ran a story about the rise of state-sponsored efforts to encourage the inclusion of creativity skills in public education.  The topic deserves some attention.      

The old debate about what role creativity ought to play in public education often stumbles upon the basic question of what creativity is, and of whether it can be measured—or even defined—in a meaningful way.  Though there may be much to be said for the axiom that creativity can’t be quantified, at least three states have been working to develop something akin to an objective measure of imagination.  The efforts have been modest and are still in embryo, but they seem to constitute an emerging development in the ongoing effort to review the priorities of American public education.

Leading the way is Massachusetts, which since 2010 has had legislation calling for the development of a so-called “creativity index.”  The aim of the Massachusetts legislation is to develop an index capable of rating every public school in the state according to how effective it is at “teaching, encouraging and fostering creativity in students.”  In explaining how creativity is to be measured, the Massachusetts scheme emphasizes “inputs” rather than “outputs,” pointing out that:

 The index shall be based in part on the creative opportunities in each school as measured by the availability of classes and before-school and after-school programs . . . that provide creative opportunities for students including . . . arts education, debate clubs, science fairs, theatre performances, concerts, filmmaking and independent research.

Note, first, that the Massachusetts scheme leans towards an especially inclusive notion of creativity; the idea seems to be that any academic program that encourages non-systematic thought processes can be counted on to “foster” creativity.  Indeed, the Massachusetts legislation resists the temptation to equate creativity with the arts (however one defines them, after all, it would be odd to contend that the skills that constitute creativity can’t be developed through training in, say, pure math or the natural sciences).  Note also that, in describing the mechanisms by which creativity is supposed to be generated, the Massachusetts legislation emphasizes the role of scalable academic programs rather than of individual teachers.  The focus is less on training educators to imbue their students with modes of thought deemed imaginative, and more on exposing children to particular kinds of events or experiences.      

Massachusetts’ interest in weighing creativity has not gone unnoticed.  Last month, the California Senate approved a bill that calls for the establishment of a “Creative and Innovative Education Index.”  The language of the California bill is almost identical to that of the Massachusetts legislation, except that California’s measure points out that the state’s index is to be voluntary.  

Then there’s Oklahoma, whose governor announced in November her plan to partner with the private sector in order to create an “innovation index.”  Like those proposed in Massachusetts and California, Oklahoma’s index would operate by assessing the number of creativity-fostering programs available to the state’s public school students.  Again, the focus is on inputs, not outputs.

By the look of it, state-level efforts to develop indices of creativity have only just begun to get off the ground.  But it isn’t too early to begin asking whether and under what conditions such efforts can be expected to produce meaningful benefits.  At any rate, even at this initial stage, at least two potential problems present themselves.

First, insofar as human creativity is a sui generis phenomenon, one not amenable to replication, there may be something more than a little ironic about relying on systematic, scalable programs to develop creativity in young people.  If creative thinking is the sort that seeks alternatives to existing or well-defined modes of reasoning, it seems that, by definition, the programmatic is the enemy of the creative.  Why not also invest in efforts to identify and train teachers who seem most likely to be able to generate creative thought patterns in the children they teach?

Second, it’s worth noting that there’s a kind of tautology in the indices being mulled by Massachusetts, California, and Oklahoma: the states define creativity as the thing that results when students are given access to “creative opportunities.”  Perhaps the way to move forward would be by attempting to establish a clear definition of what kinds of mental capacities are supposed to constitute imagination.