Student Learning Outcomes: Another Silver Bullet?

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Everything that can be
counted does not necessarily
count; everything that counts
cannot necessarily be counted.

-Albert Einstein

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When I was in the tenth grade in high school, during the Cold War era, my civics class was having a teacher-moderated discussion about the nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. The question, from what I can remember, was whether the U.S. should increase its number of nuclear warheads. I was silent during the discussion, as is customary for an introvert like me, so when the teacher called on me to express my opinion, I said what was on my mind at that moment – I said the issue was moot since once either side began a nuclear war, so many nuclear explosions would occur that life as we know it on this planet would be over. Well, that comment sank faster than a proverbial lead balloon. No one wanted to contemplate the real consequences of what they were talking about, and I had just burst their bubble. So, the teacher ruled my comment irrelevant and continued the discussion as if I had never said a word.

You would think I would have learned the real lesson from that class period – that one should never point out to others that the emperor is not wearing any clothes. But I am also stubborn by nature, and so I will say in the remainder of this essay what many people in the education industry probably don’t want to hear, much less agree with.

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It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.

-Albert Einstein

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The latest buzzword in academia, at both the secondary and post-secondary levels, is “Student Learning Outcomes”, or SLOs for short. Proponents claim that they improve student performance, but like most “reforms” that come and go in the education industry, there is no evidence to support this assertion. As Thomas C. Hunt has written in an essay entitled “Education Reforms: Lessons from History” and published in Phi Delta Kappan (September, 2005):

The history of American education is replete with examples of supposed panaceas. Taking the shape of “reforms,” these well-meaning efforts — often worthy in themselves — have dotted the educational landscape since the time of Horace Mann in the 1830s and 1840s. For example, the common school itself would remove all crime and poverty from American society. Mann described it as the “greatest invention ever made by man.” The devotional reading of the Bible in schools would result in a virtuous America. Texts such as the McGuffey readers would unfailingly instill the “right character” in the students. The public school of the early 20th century would make good, loyal Americans out of the children of the immigrants who were then arriving in large numbers. In the mid-20th century, the “Life Adjustment” curriculum would prepare all American youths for satisfying lives as individuals, family members, and citizens. The infusion of funds into the science and math curricula by the National Defense Education Act would help the U.S. “catch up” with the Soviets in the post-Sputnik era, instill needed academic rigor in the secondary school curriculum, and fittingly challenge our “gifted” students.

Potential panaceas grew in number as the 20th century progressed. We were greeted with open education, which would educate the young “naturally.” Schools would play a central role in the War on Poverty. Accountability, especially in the guise of performance contracting, would make the schools accountable to their constituents. Behavioral objectives would serve as an infallible means of achieving the goals of effective teaching and learning. Such pedagogical movements as modular scheduling would provide the proper organizational pattern for the curriculum. Site-based management would remove the educational problems created by large size.

Mr. Hunt cautions that “only when we see history as a ceaseless, uninterrupted flow that influences the present and are willing to learn from it will we avoid being victimized by the latest ‘silver bullet.'” For example, in terms of secondary schools in the United States, the public education profession has been guided for nearly a century by the belief that the difficult task of teaching a wide range of students to use their minds well isn’t really necessary; this implies that most students are better served by being taught to use their hands rather than their heads. This long-standing and deeply seated anti-intellectualism in public education, from its turn-of-the-century origins to the “life-adjustment” movement of the 1940s and 1950s and the neo-progressivism of the 1960s and early 1970s, has been well documented by David Cohen in The Shopping Mall High School (1985), by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Lawrence Cremin in The Transformation of the School (1964) and Richard Hofstadter in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), and by Diane Ravitch in The Troubled Crusade (1983) and Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (2000). Such history brings today’s “standards movement” into much sharper focus. It’s one thing for state and federal policymakers to impose demanding new academic standards on public schools; it’s another to realize that public school systems were never organized to deliver a serious academic education to more than a fraction of their students. Most school leaders didn’t think they should teach serious academics universally, nor did they have enough highly-trained teachers to do the job. I will come back to anti-intellectualism in a few moments.

Another impetus for SLOs could be the additional revenue for the publishing industry that sells stuff about it (the training handbooks alone run 50-70 pages) and for the testing agencies that sell the standardized exit exams. And even if the assessments are flawed and meaningless, at least they produce what the government likes best: numbers.

Politicians and administrators often make another claim about SLOs, namely, that they are driven by issues of cost and affordability – “the public will be asking more critically than in the past, ‘What are we getting for our money?'” However, in my years of teaching at the college level, I cannot remember one time that any student or parent asked, “Can you demonstrate learning outcomes?” or “What am I getting for my money?” Exactly who is the “public” in all these discussions about the “public” wants to know?  Furthermore, proponents of SLOs don’t realize that higher education does not merely equate to acquiring new information. It involves growth, critical thinking, values definition, and applying what you learn, among other things. By saying that what we provide in higher education is equal to reading a stack of books is insulting. Higher education is just as much, if not more, about the experience as it is about earning a degree.

But there are important negative consequences of SLOs. Let me quote David Clemens, professor of English at Monterey Peninsula Community College here in California:

That SLOs are about “student learning” is the first, and biggest, lie. There is no objective evidence that SLOs have any positive effect on learning at all, although there is evidence that they negatively affect learning because they encourage dumbing down and teaching to the test….

A few years ago, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, (WASC), adopted SLOs as a totalizing basis for accreditation and in a single stroke made fundamental changes in the definition of what we do and the way we do it.

For years we had been assured that “Assessment rubrics and student learning outcomes are just data collection and will never be used for teacher evaluation.” In fact, expected outcomes and assessment schemes are perfectly suited for use on teacher evaluation forms and already have been. But anyone who actually teaches knows that the most important factor in education is the student. The greatest effects on student learning are the individual student’s knowledge of subject, self motivation, language proficiency, disposition, parental support, social skills, talent, physical and mental health, preparation, cultural background, religious beliefs, political persuasion, commitment, desire, determination, level of cognitive growth, age, and work ethic. Student learning outcomes are silent on all these factors.

Yet as of last year [2007], SLOs are already a component of teacher evaluation. WASC Accreditation Standard III: Resources [part 1c] reads:

“Faculty and others directly responsible for student progress toward achieving stated student learning outcomes have, as a component of their evaluation, effectiveness in producing those learning outcomes.”

…Because student attainment of stated SLOs will affect teacher evaluation, SLOs actually create downward pressure on curricular standards. If I am to be judged by my students’ achievement on outcomes tests and SLO guarantees, I will spend my class time on the most testable and achievable SLOs so as to insure “student success” on the exit test. The next step involves the current buzzword: “alignment.” Certainly, if the English 1A SLOs at one college are producing a higher metric of “student success” than other schools, the logic of SLOs is to identify such “best practices” and create statewide alignment of them. Voila! One hundred nine schools, one curriculum, one set of outcomes, one exit test, and one set of textbooks.

Another common but egregious lie is that learning outcomes do not compromise academic freedom. On the contrary, SLOs are the greatest danger to academic freedom in my professional lifetime. The fact that WASC’s definition of SLOs mentions “attitudes” I find chilling. The heart of academic freedom is the conviction that both education and community suffer when teachers are forced to embrace a single viewpoint. To the contrary, our highest courts have held that society benefits when students are exposed to various academically legitimate yet contradictory ideas.

One of the key strategies of coercion employed by SLO zealots is that it’s all one big conversation and in the end we all agree. This is another lie intended to produce the appearance of consensus. I believe that it is vital to dispel this illusion. The word from U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to WASC is “SLOs or we will kill you and replace you with a federal bureaucracy.” [emphasis added]

The last paragraph is most provocative. Could the real reason politicians are pushing SLOs is because they want to just look like they’re doing something to improve student performance? From their point of view, it’s better to hold the teachers accountable (read: blame the teachers) than the students and their families, since there are more voters among the latter and the latter don’t want responsibility for student performance, anyway. Of course, there are also other forces at work here, including the ever-present financial motive for anyone who has something to gain from a new education fad. Obviously, the accreditors have families to support, so they have got to get with the program if they want to keep their jobs.

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The things taught in schools and colleges are not an education, but the means of education.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

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So, if incompetent teachers are not to blame, why is student performance so poor in high schools and colleges?  Paul Trout, who taught English at Montana State University at Bozeman, suggested in 1997 – over ten years ago – that student anti-intellectualism and the consequent corporatization of education is to blame:

Increasingly, career-minded students see college – or at least required courses – as an imposition between high school and the good life, an obstacle to be gotten over as soon as possible, just like high school was….

To attract and reassure such students, colleges and universities are wont to talk about them as being consumers of higher education. This notion implies, of course, that the desires of the customer reign supreme (“consumer sovereignty”), that the customer should be easily and completely satisfied, and that the customer should try to get as much as possible while paying as little as possible. When this consumer model is applied to higher education, it has disastrous effects on academic standards and student motivation.

The consumer model implies, for instance, that university “services” – among them, courses – should be shaped to satisfy student tastes, and that students can use or waste these services as they see fit. When students think of themselves as consumers, they study only when it is convenient (like shopping), expect satisfaction with little effort, want knowledge served up in “easily digestible, bite-sized chunks,” and assume that academic success, including graduation, is guaranteed. After all, failure – or consumer dissatisfaction – is “ruled out upon payment of one’s tuition”.

When taken to its logical conclusion, as many students do, the consumer model implies that students buy grades by paying for them through learning. Students who subscribe to this notion try to be consumers by paying – that is learning – as little as possible. A few carry it even further, and believe that whenever they learn something they have actually lost in the exchange.

Needless to say, instructors who try to teach students more than the students have bargained for are going to run into trouble…

The situation has only gotten worse in the last twelve years. Much worse.

[If you happen to be one of my students, and you’re offended by what Trout wrote, then chances are you aren’t one of the students he’s complaining about. Besides, I doubt an anti-intellectual student would bother reading my blog – after all, it won’t be on the test.]

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One response to “Student Learning Outcomes: Another Silver Bullet?

  1. So instead of being dumbed down pupils will have a negative learning outcome – which when read literally suggests they will know less on leaving school than when they started.

    Conspiracy Theory Of The Month – Dumbing Down

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