A radical critique of the learning outcomes assessment movement.

Author:Bennett, Michael
Position:Essay
 
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The Learning Outcomes Assessment (LOA) movement seems rather innocuous. Teachers and administrators at colleges and universities are asked to articulate the goals, objectives, measures, and outcomes of the educational process at every level: from the classroom to the department to the institution as a whole. Educators engage in this process with the help of curriculum mapping or educational matrices or a host of other tools and templates provided by any number of readily available frameworks (see the website of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment for many examples). The information gathered is then used to evaluate curricula, programs, instructors, and institutions for purposes of internal review and external evaluation.

And yet we insist that a radical perspective on the LOA movement can be summarized in one word: RESIST! Why resist what appears, on the surface, to be such a benign process? Our radical critique of LOA goes beneath the surface level to historicize the movement, examine its socio-political contexts, and ultimately suggest that the movement provides an ideological smokescreen acting as a distraction from the real problems with U.S. higher education.

First, we need to distinguish between the LOA movement and legitimate faculty-driven efforts at curriculum development, best assessment practices, and course evaluation. Trevor Hussey and Patrick Smith delineate three types of learning outcomes that are the result of: 1) one lesson; 2) an entire course; and 3) a whole program of study. According to Hussey and Smith, the first two types are basically mere changes in vocabulary from "lesson plan" and "course content" to "learning outcomes." They argue that the focus on learning outcomes becomes less effective as you move beyond the individual lesson toward a full course, until it is basically meaningless when used to articulate outcomes for whole programs of study.

The use of the term "learning outcome" for what is to be included in a whole program of study leading to a qualification such as a degree constitutes a misuse. In short, the further away from the student and the teacher in a classroom, the more remote, generalized, and irrelevant statements of learning outcomes become (114). Because engaged learning is so complex, the level at which the LOA movement most often is focused renders meaningful assessment impossible. Outcomes become a "device for monitoring and auditing" educators, rather than a tool of teaching and learning (Hussey and Smith, "The Uses" 357). Thus Hussey and Smith conclude that "The focus on intended learning outcomes...has more to do with administrative and regulatory necessity rather than education in the sense of students' deep engagement with curriculum" ("The Uses" 358).

In the United States, the roots of the LOA movement, as opposed to engaged learning practices, can be traced back to Taylorism and theories of scientific management. LOA is really another manifestation for the standards movement, which emerged alongside the efficiency movement at the turn of the 20th century. By the first decade of the last century, business models, rhetoric, and ideology had so saturated the field of K-12 education that educators themselves began proposing that schools should run as efficiently as factories. A social efficiency movement in education took firm hold, with influential proponents such as William C. Bagley, who wrote the textbook Classroom Management in 1907 so that teachers, educators, and professionals in the field might better apply the principles of scientific management to their workspaces. His book was followed by Franklin Bobbit's The Curriculum, in 1918. Drawing his influence from business and economic sectors, Bobbit--the inventor of Curriculum Theory--argued that schools, like businesses, should be efficient, eliminate waste, and focus on outcomes to the degree that the curriculum must be useful in shaping students into adult workers. Along with Frederick Winslow Taylor, Bobbit believed that efficient outcomes depended on centralized authority and precise, top down instruction for all tasks performed. Teachers were expected to acquiesce in the outside knowledge of efficiency experts--administrators and professors of education. Thus, curriculum was conceived of as a normalizing device and instrument of social regulation, one that would help control the working class so that the United States could better compete with German production. In the last century's efficiency movement, as in the current LOA movement, teachers were conceived of as passive receptacles, rather than primary players in the process of education (Eisner 347).

In the contemporary context, assessment advocate Peter Ewell argues that LOA transferred from the mainstream corporate world to the realm of higher education starting in the 1980s when the "burgeoning competency movement in corporate training . . . [stimulated] accreditation's interest in examining student learning outcomes" (3) as part of the effort to "develop a '21st Century' workforce" (2). Rising with the tide of late twentieth century neo-conservatism/neo-liberalism, the discourse of LOA circulated from private think tanks and non-governmental organizations, such as the conservative American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) and its neo-liberal cousin the Committee for Economic Development (CED), to the halls of Congress as part of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and Congressional Hearings on Assuring Quality and Accountability in Postsecondary Education and the White House, most famously in the Spellings Report (2005), but also in various other Department of Education pronouncements made over the past ten years.

ACTA's report Can College Accreditation Live Up to its Promise? makes the link between outcomes assessment and accreditation when it claims that accrediting agencies had historically focused only on inputs rather than outcomes: "Rather than ensuring education quality, accreditation merely verifies that a school has what accreditors regard as the proper inputs and procedures" (Leef and Burris 2). This leads to the conclusion that accrediting agencies should be limited or abolished unless they accept ACTA's agenda:

First, the connection between...

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