Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Assessment: a blog post

by Andy Simon
September 2010

I haven’t been involved in the discussion of assessment for more than a year. I apologize if the issues I raise have already been heard and discussed. I confess that I am skeptical about the whole enterprise, and yet I know that many intelligent, aware, hard-working people–some of them my friends–have put in a great deal of time and effort examining proposals and strategies. I am not completely comfortable saying, in effect, to these folks, “your efforts are for naught, the project is inherently flawed.” For one thing, I may be wrong. Just on the other side of the next committee meeting a beautiful, effective, and efficient approach may be discovered or created. Yet, I was asked to write about my objections–qualms might be a better term. And so I shall.

The point of the project, I remember being told, is that taxpayers, politicians, and business leaders want to know that they are getting a good return for the money they invest in higher education. What they want to know–and what we must be able to show them–is that we are indeed enhancing students’ lives–adding value to them–by educating them.

My first observation about the project so described (and perhaps inaccurately so) is that we should be very careful about how we think about the relationship between those who sign the paychecks of teachers and those who receive the checks. John Dewey, a century ago, in defending the concept of academic freedom, offered a similar warning. He said, in effect, that although the trustees of a university are in an economic sense the employers of professors, the job of teaching is primarily to serve the public.

Nowadays, I see the idea of “the public” as a bit more problematic than Dewey did, and besides it might seem plausible (though I would say mistaken) to equate “the public” with the taxpayers. I would say that though we are employed by the taxpayers (in public education) we are responsible primarily to the generation we are educating and beyond that to future generations as well. For if we do not educate the current generation, who will there be to educate the generation that follows, and the generation after that?

This observation points to one of the problems with the very model the concept of adding value to students lives depends on. It is, after all, a rather industrial model–students’ lives are the raw material we work our magic on. They pass through our educational factories and, like raw steel turned into automobiles, their value is enhanced. But processing students’ lives can at best be only part of the function of our institutions of higher education. Another function–and a vital one–is to preserve some important things: ways of thinking, intellectual skills, bodies of knowledge, bodies of literature and the keys that unlock their meaning, bodies of art and the keys that unlock their meaning, historically significant works that inform our own culture and literature, and much, much more. How much value is added to our civilization because we can understand that the piles of stones that are scattered across Europe are the remains of a once vast empire, and because we can study the ideas that enabled that empire to rise and that caused it eventually to fall? Having that kind of knowledge adds at best a pittance of value to any one student’s life, but does that exhaust its value to our civilization?

It is important to note that higher education is one of the few extant institutions that predate the industrial revolution. It would be a grave mistake to force it into a industrial model merely because that is the only model we can think of. And yet, that is precisely what assessing education in terms of processing and credentializing students does. The success of the industrial model in many spheres of our lives has made us forget that there were–and hence are–other ways of thinking about education. One of them involves seeing education as a process of preparing and inducting students into a community–a community of scholars.

Clearly, there are problems with this model, too. One of them is that a closed community can perpetuate an unfair exclusivity. I was tempted to say that a pre-industrial approach to education saw the point as inducting students into a brotherhood, which would have been historically accurate as it reflects the way the “community of scholars” model has in the past excluded people who had a legitimate claim to be admitted. But the solution to such problems is not to throw out the model altogether but to try to ensure that there is open access to the community of the educated.

I can say quite explicitly what I think we must protect our institutions of higher education from: market forces. The threat to education that has existed at least as long as the advent of Capitalism has been enormously amplified by the computerization of our culture. Education has become a commodity–something to be bought and sold. That might not be so bad, but in our society, the only commodities that can be successfully bought and sold are ones that can be mass produced. In order to be mass produced, education must be standardized and homogenized. When I go to the store for, say, a pair of socks, the characteristics that make the socks I come home with unique an individual entities in the world are unimportant. What is important is that the socks I come home with are interchangeable with any of several dozen in the store I shopped in, any of tens of thousands in the stores the sock manufacturer supplies. That’s the way
it is with mass-produced commodities.

We are already well on our way to commodifying higher education. When we discuss the question whether college credits earned on-line are equivalent to credit earned in face-to-face classrooms we are addressing the interchangeability of our product. Of course, the answer to our question is obvious: if earning the credits in the two venues add equivalent value to our students’ lives, then they are clearly equivalent.

But if that is the approach to education that we want, why stop there? Why have professional teachers at all, with all their quirks and personalities? Why not have Harvard or Stanford develop the most effective on-line curricula (since massifying the classroom is impractical, though not impossible) as measured by value added to students’ lives, and then hire educational technicians to administer them? I’m being a bit facetious, but I really do fear that something like what I’ve described is the future for higher education: most students will enroll in institutions (note I didn’t say “attend”) where they will be offered the best on-line curricula the school system can afford. Only the elite, that is, the wealthy, will be able to afford colleges that offer face-to-face instruction from actual professors.

That poses a serious question: is there any real value in the uniqueness of face-to-face instruction by professional instructors? Maybe the answer is no. Maybe the individuality of instructors, their quirkiness, their personalities are irrelevant, or worse, impediments to the educational process. Obviously, I don’t think so. And I don’t think so because what I remember most about my undergraduate education is not the content of the classes but the inspiration I took away from many professors–and some of the quirkiest were the most inspiring. It may be just me, but I think inspiration is best transmitted face-to-face. I don’t think it comes across all that well through a computer screen. (I’m pretty old fashioned, but I believe that the immediate experience of presence is qualitatively different from any technology-mediated experience, no matter how life-like.)

Now that I’ve struck a personal note, let me pursue it a bit longer and then bring this long post to a close. I have no doubt that my education added a great deal of value to my life. Probably the most valuable contribution was never explicitly stated but implicit in everything I studied. My professors revealed to me the vast world of ideas–not specifically philosophical ideas, but the world of thought and knowledge. At some point I caught onto the notion that, if I played my cards right, I could spend the rest of my life studying anything at all that interested me, whether it be the sex lives of the Greeks (the revelation came to me while I was barely post-adolescent) or the musical traditions of the former Portuguese colonies, or anything else.

What a valuable lesson–to be shown to the vast continent of human knowledge and to be led to some of the points of entry to it. We have so many opportunities to enhance and enrich our students’ lives. We give students literature to read and insist on discussing it, and by so doing reveal to them the inner lives of other people, and by implication revealing their own inner lives, too. I feel some regret that throughout my teaching career I didn’t emphasize nearly enough to my students the importance of finding and creating beauty in their lives. I don’t think the intangible enhancements we have to offer are any less real because they are intangible, nor are they any less real because they are unmeasurable. I’m probably just tilting at windmills, but I think we have a responsibility to the future to do our best to protect education from the market forces that would industrialize it, and by so doing would destroy its humaneness and its ineffable value.


  1. Andy Simon posts an eloquent and honest examination. I feel there is a general and incorrect assumption in America that teachers, from K-12 through post-docs are job trainers. As a math instructor I am consistently asked "How will I use algebra in my job?". I have my answers, but I believe half of my job is to train students in structured thought. Art classes in part instruct students in application of paint to canvass, but also in how to train students in intuition and in how to see, among other skills. Speech classes include metacognition, distilling salient points, connecting to others... Trade classes include attention to detail, precision, dedication to quality, communication with customers,... I believe we as educators are responsible to our profession to change the perception that a school's purpose is simply to train students to work. I believe we must be clear and specific with students and with ourselves that what is taught and learned within any discipline, if learned well, can profoundly improve who each of us can become.

  2. I want to express whole hearted support for Andy’s views. As far as I know the faculty played no part in the decision to adopt the outcomes based curriculum. A utilitarian philosophy of education is being imposed on us. A philosophy that is contrary to core values of Academia that go back at least as far as Aristotle. Academia has long held the conviction that the value of the understanding of universal principles and causes is superior to the value practical utility. The paradigm of outcomes and assessment recognizes no value other than that of practical utility.

    -Phil Thurber
    Sylvania Math Dept.

  3. Phil - With all due respect, let me offer a refutation to your final statement. It *does* seem that there's a close fit between utilitarianism and assessment paradigms, but there's no syllogistic tie between the two. It is damned difficult to assess critical thinking (or truth, or beauty, or any of those things that REALLY matter). YES. But there are ways.

    Please: Dig deeper into this stuff. There are ways to meaningfully think about assessing the important stuff without getting sidetracked into the "Are we meeting employer's needs?" dead end. The danger is, if people who care do *not* dig deeper and do it right, we may have the utilitarian paradigm forced upon us because it's "easier."
    Davina Ramirez, ESOL

  4. Davina - Let’s dig deeper into this. I’ll explain why I think an outcome based curriculum reflects a fundamentally utilitarian philosophy of education, and I hope you’ll explain why you think it doesn’t.
    An outcome is defined to be something a student can do in the real world as a result of completing a course of study. The outcome must lend itself to quantitative measurement. What is meant by this? I feel certain that earning an income would qualify, but I assume outcomes also include other activities deemed useful to society. I take the emphasis on the “real” world to mean that outcomes have practical usefulness, or practical utility.
    Academia has traditionally found high value in understanding as the fruit of intellectual endeavor, has found high value in understanding itself quite apart from any utility that may derive from the understanding.
    Understanding does lend itself to quantitative measurement. That is what we do when we test a student’s mastery of the content of a course. However mastery of course content is definitely not considered an outcome. An outcome must be something a student can do in the real world as a result of mastering the course content, something of practical utility in society. This philosophy of education finds no value in the understanding itself. Understanding takes place in the mind and the soul of the student, not in the “real” world.
    Since the outcome paradigm doesn’t value things that take place in the mind and the soul but only values things of practical utility that take place in the “real” world, I think it is a utilitarian philosophy.

    Phil Thurber
    Sylvania Math Department

  5. Andy Simon, Phil Thurber, thank you for your clear and intelligent thoughts.

    I'm wondering: now what? I have consistently resisted these utilitarian developments, and I do speak out in my SACC meetings to that effect-- but my sense is that there is a general disinclination to protest amongst many of my colleagues (too tired from teaching and assessing to look up, probably). Can some sort of organizing take place, so that we might begin to object? Is this not in fact our duty? What might this protestation look like?