In a recent article titled "I’d like to take this opportunity to triple-dog-dare Peter Thiel," Daniel Drezner quotes the following from a Department of Education document:
"[M]any of the factors that contribute to a high quality post-secondary education are intangible, not amenable to simple and readily comparable quantitative measures, and not the subject of existing data sources that could be used across all institutions. Foremost among these are learning outcomes, which are central to understanding the value of an education but vary widely across programs and institutions and are communicated in many different ways."
This statement reveals some of the problems that exist with the current obsessive emphasis on learning outcomes and assessment. Let's look at a few.
First, the claim that there are "intangible" factors that contribute to a high quality post-secondary education. Yes, there are. But, instead of fostering the conditions for those factors to work best we seem to be currently more interested in denying their importance in favor of more tangible, measurable outcomes. While most educators like to think that they are trying to foster a deep understanding in their of the course material, administrators continue to insist that understanding cannot be a learning outcome since it cannot be measured. If it can't be measured it doesn't matter.
Second, learning outcomes are important but "vary widely across programs and institutions and are communicated in many different ways." The obvious (to the bureaucrats) solution, more uniformity, more conformity. As psychologist Barry Schwartz has pointed out in his book Practical Wisdom, this approach is very tempting but causes a great deal of problems. The lock-step curriculum that already exists in public primary and secondary education already leads to disengagement among students. Yes, it can lead to improved test results, but does it lead to deeper learning? Not so much. And, this lock-step curriculum is exactly the solution that will be sought to the current "problem" with learning outcomes.
As Schwartz points out, the reason for this push is understandable. We want to prevent disasters in the classroom which would result from really poor teaching. But, while the emphasis on rules and conformity will prevent disasters it will also "guarantee mediocrity." Is that the best we can do? Is it really more important to eliminate all problems than to provide the conditions for more meaningful learning.
So, the logic of learning outcomes seems to be:
If it can't be measured it doesn't matter.
Measurement is primary, learning is secondary.
Variation in teaching needs to be reduced or eliminated.
Preventing bad teaching is more important than fostering great teaching.
The thing is, there are ways of preventing disasters which don't entail eliminating the conditions which might foster greatness. There are ways to determine what and how well students are learning. But, these require human judgment, human interaction, and human engagement. They require less emphasis on quantifiable data and more emphasis on the subjective component that is an important part of any learning experience. They require effort and someone to care enough to engage in the difficult work of getting to know students as people, not mere data points. It's what most educators do when they are not being distracted by teaching to the test, gathering assessment data, measuring learning outcomes, and following a lock-step curriculum. What will they do when more conformity and objective data measurement requirements become the norm? What would you do? The penalty for failing to engage with a student is minimal. The penalty for failing to comply with the requirements to assess and document is much greater. So, which will be sacrificed?