Assessing the ‘Outcomes’

BY AARON BARLOW

Christine Emba, editor of In Theory, wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post on July 28, 2017 calling the current mania for ‘outcomes’ a “familiar trap.” She was focusing on politics, particularly on the failure of health care ‘repeal and replace’ but her thoughts apply to education as well. They apply, in fact, to everything in this country that now hinges on assessment of pre-determined results on pre-determined grounds—and that sometimes seems to be just about everything.

We just can’t seem to just let things happen and then adjust. We have to define and then force whatever it is we are doing to fit. We think we know so much that we can determine ‘outcomes’ even for processes that we only vaguely understand. The workings of the amorphous and various American health-care system come to mind, as does education.

Emba quotes North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, “There’s a consensus that we need to produce some outcomes.” Something, anything: just give a list. Assessment and accountability require it. Assessment and accountability: “O brave new world/That has such people in’t!”

From Shakespeare to Huxley, we’ve been rolling our eyes and getting angry at the naïve and/or avaricious people foolishly and dangerously seeking change and/or control (‘outcomes,’ as we use the phrase, somewhat paradoxically encompasses both). As Emba says (the elisions represent her specific references to politics; read the article for the full impact of her argument):

The mind-set driving these desperate grabs for productivity was clear…. In a congratulatory speech the day after the election, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) declared that the new term presented an opportunity “to go big, to go bold and to get things done for the people of this country.”

But there are perils to just “getting things done.”

In the rush to put something — anything! — up on the scoreboard, one risks rushing past much more worthwhile, if time-consuming, opportunities….

And then there’s the long-term pitfall to the pursuit of constant surface achievement: It becomes a self-compounding problem…. Find something else to fill the gap, no matter how ill-advised this new option happens to be.

That sounds quite a bit like what our college and university administrations are doing—certainly what the City University of New York did in its rush to institute its CUNY Pathways initiative four years ago. Just do it. Get something done. It’s not the game that counts, but the ‘outcome.’

Our students are suffering the consequences.

Unfortunately, CUNY didn’t have Arizona’s John McCain to make an effective thumbs-down gesture, just a faculty rendered impotent (like the Democrats) by an administration looking for a win at any cost. Now, the students’ education suffers from the administrative ‘win,’ just as the millions helped by Obamacare would, had not three Republican senators (including McCain) had the willingness and power to stand up for them.

As Emba says, “this isn’t a recommendation that… [colleges and universities] give up on work resign themselves to failure and slink off.” But there is often reason for waiting a time instead of acting to change something. Action is no more frequently a “win” than is change. Sometimes improvement comes through refusing to rush. Both Obamacare and American higher education can stand improvement, but that only can happen if we first see what is working and why.

Education happens not because of imposed ‘outcomes,’ assessment or even accountability. Education comes when students want to learn and are provided the resources needed for learning. Educators spend their time most effectively in leading students to that desire and in providing gateways to personal development. Imposed outcomes, especially in face of almost universal opposition (the CUNY faculty were as against Pathways as the American population is against ‘repeal and replace’ of Obamacare), never improves anything, for all of the hoopla by administrators and politicians. All they do is provide a new way of counting—which often is nothing more than a new way of counting out.

Those who don’t reach the threshold certainly are pushed out—but what does that mean?

Are we to close schools or deny students education by other means because the institutions (or students) don’t meet certain expectations? Are we to deny affordable medical care simply because the system for providing it isn’t perfect?

Is there a pathway included, in either case, toward reaching the minimum threshold established? Neither our Republican government nor our non-educator college and university administrators work with that sort of process dynamic, with the idea of slow and steady improvement; they seem to believe that they can fix problems by fiat instead of by process. Proof? In both the House and Senate, leadership presented legislation to members rather than involving members in designing it—just as CUNY did, regarding faculty, with Pathways. Unfortunately, as I said above, in the latter case, the faculty had no effective power, certainly nothing like the US Senate does.

The real problem with ‘repeal and replace’ of Obamacare was that ‘replace’ was as meaningless as ‘outcome’ is (as dropped into undergraduate syllabi, certainly). Unless one goes into the nuts-and-bolts of the programs while also assessing real and possible goals (‘outcomes’ aren’t ‘goals,’ by the way), one is simply generating hot air—and for what purpose? For the win? For change? Are these what we really want to be aiming for?

In the meantime, educators and medical professionals try to do the best they can, succeeding more than many are led to believe—even in the face of administrators and politicians who believe that by demanding something they can make it real.

2 thoughts on “Assessing the ‘Outcomes’

  1. When it is reported that 70% of university faculty are “at will” with primary responsibility of delivering courses, and often have their evaluations open to public comment, when tenure track faculty are retained and promoted by counting publications with high impact factors and where the brass ring for students is pseudo sheep skin delivered in digital format, one might ask if this is the university whose entrance is carved with some noble quote.

    When campuses have traditional unions, the negotiations are about retention, retirement and medical benefits and the principle union’s toothless bite is “censorship” is Pathways critique just old whine in new bottles?

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