Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Trouble with Outcomes

By Steve Buel

Outcomes are the new mantra in education. Programs cost money and are no longer how educational “experts” wish to measure education. You can get improved outcomes by being smarter and more efficient. Having better systems. And you can measure them. We can know if what we are doing is working or not. Data allows us to hold educators accountable, to make sure we are getting the results we want and even allows educators to hold themselves accountable. Outcomes – the way to go.

But there is a problem and it pervades the entire idea of outcomes. Focusing on outcomes limits education itself. Take something like understanding the first amendment to the Constitution. If I want my students to be able to list the five basic freedoms of the first amendment then outcomes works great. Students can be measured on whether they know the five freedoms. But if I want my students to understand what these five freedoms mean, have a real sense of the role they play in society and in the creation of our democracy, be able to have a knowledge of the role they play or might play in their own life, and learn to be sophisticated in critically thinking about this topic, then outcomes get in the way.

If I focus on measurable outcomes I create some interesting problems. First off all students won’t even remember the five freedoms after a short period of time. I hardly know any adults who can state them. Yet those five freedoms are the basis of the freedom in the greatest free country ever devised on the face of the earth. So you can’t make the argument they are not important to know.

Further, if I focus on measurable outcomes none of my students will have any real understanding of what these freedoms actually mean because this type of material is not seen as important because it can’t be accurately measured. So the students coming out of my “measurable outcomes” class will have a substantially worse education than students whose teachers have expanded into areas which take more thought and critical thinking.

Now try to work this problem backwards as the educational proponents of outcomes do. If you say I want to teach what I can accurately measure then I am left with knowing there are five freedoms and what they are. But if I work backwards stating that I don’t care if I can accurately measure the result of my teaching or not but want my students to have a sophisticated understanding of the many roles the five freedoms play in America then my teaching will be much more powerful and my students will be much better educated.

So, when the new state achievement compacts state that we want to have the outcome of a certain percentage of test scores, or graduation rates, we are in the first case limiting the breadth of education our students are getting, and in the second case ignoring the incredibly complex story behind a student dropping out. In effect, we are choosing the weaker educational approach.

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