Thursday, January 17, 2013

Against outcome-based education in higher education

Outcome-based education is all the rage in K-12. And by that, I mean it is literally an object of rage: it is the battleground upon which major skirmishes are fought for the heart of education in this country, particular in the areas of public schools and their rapid privatization at the behest of charter movements. Obviously, I'm not a fan.

It wasn't until recently that I started to put together another trend around higher education that I've had the misfortunate of witnessing in higher education - the dialogue around learning outcomes and assessment. Constantly cited by student affairs administrators such as myself and general administration people, everyone seems to agree that learning outcomes are vital to the work that we do (and I speak as a member of the workers in a university, not just student affairs practitioners here). This is the nascent start of a critique around this concept that I hope will launch further discussion. It wasn't until I was reading about the reaction of teachers in Seattle to standardized testing that this argument started to gel within me, and this is the start of a larger exploration of the contradictions of capital as it runs up against a public good such as education that I've been wrestling with since graduate school.

Arguments advancing assessment and learning outcomes that I've seen suggest that we should utilize assessment to be just and equitable among our attention - to give attention equally to each student. The analogy used was, you wouldn't pour water haphazardly into rows of glasses; you'll spill some, and pour more in some while not filling others. Obviously, this analogy falls apart under any sort of serious consideration - literally, in how it almost nakedly borrows a banking model of education as a sort of reasonable place to begin exploration of the relation of student affairs practitioners to students, but also when we seriously consider the concept of learning and vessels. It's obvious that students come into universities and colleges with vastly different life experiences and "learning". Some glasses are thin and fill faster than others. Others are already quite filled when they come here. The analogy continues to fall apart the more we bend it, pretzel-like, into various categories and attempt to account for the many varieties of students that can attend the university.

This also reveals another sort of contradiction. While claiming to be student-focused, we reduce the student to an object, capable of the barest sort of comprehension, the dumbest level of cognition, and the most basic of capabilities. "As a result of X, considering Y, students will do Z, as demonstrated by W." Where X stands for a program, Y stands for concretized knowledge, Z is a measurable (hence concretized) outcome, and W is an assessment metric. This might be a strong learning outcome, but if we start replacing the variables with actual information, it quickly falls apart. Two individuals may go through the same sort of class and draw and retain different information from it, depending on their previous experience. To draw from a most basic class, the amount of learning that happens to me in a Feminism and Ethnography course I'm currently taking is quite different from the undergraduates I'm with. They read a text one way and I read it quite differently - particularly since I am not an anthropologist by training.

Why has student affairs embraced outcome-based education so avidly and uncritically? Several reasons spring to mind in particular, not in any particular order:
  1. In labor vs. capital antagonism, student affairs practitioners generally fall in line alongside the "management", or adminstration. (I digress from this article to suggest that when considering the interests of student affairs practitioners like myself, it would be advantageous of us to figure out where our interests diverge from administration and converge with faculty or students.)
  2. As some have noted, "student development theory", with its mixture of popular psychology, educational psychology, and original research, was the major justification of student affairs administrators that they could point to as justification for their existence on campus - administrators in student affairs were uniquely suited to respond to the concerns and development of students in universities. Outcome-based education is merely the next big justification after student development theory has lost its luster, and one that accords with the demands placed on universities by neoliberal education proponents that are represented in our government, consistently from the Bush to Obama administrations.
  3. One of the major documents cited frequently by student affairs practitioners - and I'm told, roundly critiqued or mocked, depending on how seriously it's taken by faculty - is Learning Reconsidered 2, which is decidedly a product of the No Child Left Behind era of Margaret Spellings. The emphasis on accountability and assessment serve as key implements in creating a regime of control over the activity of state institutions to make sure that capital is being directed to areas where it is most "profitable."
  4. As scholars like Sheila Slaughter have written at length, the university was "tamed" by state governing bodies as the traditional support for higher education was trimmed over the past several decades, forcing universities to seek outside sources of revenue to fund them - in short, legislators hobbled universities and then forced them to stand on legs of industry's design. 
While learning outcomes may seem to focus the direction of learning towards students, they replicate certain logics of capital - in short, where and why we send money to some places and not others. Despite the promises of any administrator that learning outcomes and the successful completion of them will not affect a department or division's bottom-line, those promises will always bear out to be false. Not because of bad intentions upon the part of the administrator, but because the accountability structure created by learning outcomes and assessment mechanisms will invariably lead to a single conclusion: funding allocated by completion and "success" in learning outcomes.

The other predictable conclusion that will be reached is a parallel to the cheating scandal under Michelle Rhee's regime in the D.C. school system: departments will create assessment mechanisms with narrow definitions and easily measured outcomes because that is the ideal way to demonstrate "learning", as defined through the model of assessment. What proponents of assessment fail to recognize is that assessment itself creates a definition of learning that is reified through assessment mechanisms. It's like a twisted version of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle: by merely examining an intangible product, I must concretize it.

And, by reducing the object of learning to a simple transactional and regurgitational model, learning outcomes actually vastly reduce the amount of learning happening. Our attention is focused on achieving basic, assessable outcomes. In a sort of bizarre way, if one accepts the premise that universities are in a mode of industrial production of students (and that is their true product, not knowledge that is guarded and maintained by intellectual property law), and extends that analysis to student affairs practitioners (we are individuals that help people move down the assembly line, a sort of quality control), we're actively trying to usurp the production of individuals into our sphere of production. It should not surprise us then when faculty in universities react harshly to proposals from student affairs divisions about "learning" and co-curricular models - the curriculum of higher education was never our assembly line to begin with. Developing co-curricular models to account for what some have estimated as up to 84 percent of the learning outside the classroom environment - which is, alone, a wild number to attempt to manage from a student affairs side - is a ridiculous notion.

Where universities should be moving is to work to create environments - whether they be academic residential programs or faculty-friendly environments outside the classroom (and the supporting structures for faculty to engage in such experiences) - that break down the mental barriers between the classroom and other experiences where learning can happen, to communicate to students in higher education that they don't simply go to class, take notes and take tests to regurgitate information, but that the entire collegiate environment is a place for learning. This will not happen until we stop giving up the ground on education. Without even bothering to argue our case before state legislatures on the importance of funding us as entities that produce learning, we have ceded the argument to neoliberal reform. 

I have not done any serious exploration into this topic, but I have not seen a single private or for-profit university was cited as a model for assessment and learning outcomes. Why? The hypothesis should be clear: this is the unique contradictory nature of imposing capital's logic upon the public education system.