"Oh, outcomes! Oh, here, oh, now, oh hell!" A Rant

In Ray Bradbury’s story “Usher II,” it’s ‘realism,’ not ‘outcomes.’ But the point remains the same: too often humans attempt to reduce existence to the physical, the countable. The imaginative, the flight of fancy, the speculative… these are dismissed as unproductive, as a waste of time. As useless.

We’re doing that to education today. Not only are we relying on standardized tests to an excessive degree, but we are defining our learning down to “outcomes.”

One site providing testing of outcomes claims:

Multiple measures taken over time allow an institution to envision the dynamic of its students as they progress through a degree program. Comparability of those measures is an essential element for decision making intended to refine and improve programs.

Even if I approved of outcomes assessment, I would never turn to those people. Institutions envisioning dynamics? Certainly, I hope they never assess writing majors. Comparability of measures… I think I know what they are trying to say (though they say it poorly), that things need to be able to be compared. Like apples and oranges? Well, maybe what I don’t really understand is why.

One college, on its page about outcomes assessment has this:

outcomes assessment is meaningless unless the information learned is applied to future institutional decisions

Hmmm… information is applied to decisions? Not to understanding? One of the problems with outcomes assessment is that people pretend to use it to imagine that they can remove… people. In both of these quotes we have decisions being made… but not by people. In the first, we don’t know who is making them at all, only that they are to ‘refine and improve’ programs (no mention is made of improving student education). In the other, it is institutions making decisions, not people.

This comes from a ‘white paper’ on outcomes assessment:

In recent years, educational accrediting agencies have mandated that institutions focus on learning outcomes. This mandate has helped to weaken the allure of exclusive reliance on process variables and raise the probability that outcomes will be examined and assessment results will meaningfully impact programs.

Well, not exactly. This makes it sound like the accrediting agencies are making educational institutions focus solely on learning outcomes. Actually, they still want them to focus on learning. The outcomes are merely a way of keeping things on track. Nor has there ever been ‘exclusive reliance on process variables,’ alluring or not—and outcomes assessment has not been a counterbalance. Reductive, this is. And inaccurate. But this is the problem with outcomes: they, and not education, becoming the driving force.

Maybe this explains what it means:

The current interest in outcomes assessment represents a major shift in recent decades in attitudes about evaluating education. Outcomes assessment deals not only with assessment, but with accountability, usually in terms of accomplishing goals defined as desirable by the institution in question. It questions the results of educational processes, and focuses the argument on what students, faculty, and administrators demonstrably do.

Which brings me back to “Oh, outcomes! Oh, here, oh, now, oh hell!” ‘Demonstrably do.’ So much of education just isn’t demonstrable, certainly not through outcomes. Assess this:

I believe that education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction.

That’s from John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed.” He’s talking about education as a dynamic, not as something that can be, as T.S. Eliot might have put it:

formulated, sprawling on a pin

But something living, something that is always in the process of adjusting.

Education, anyway, isn’t something that is, but something that will be. It is always in the process of becoming, never quite there. When we pin it to outcomes, we kill it.

For education’s outcome to be educated people, then, it can’t focus on outcomes. As Hamlet says:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your outcomes.

Or something like that.