Faculty Unions Weigh In on Assessment

May 17, 2011

Representatives of the three faculty unions staked out their respective positions on student learning outcomes assessment in a new paper released by the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. The report is being touted as the first time the three associations -- which represent some 450,000 members, many of whom are not assumed to embrace such assessments -- have gone on the record on the subject.

The three representatives -- Gary Rhoades of the American Association of University Professors, Larry Gold of the American Federation of Teachers and Mark Smith of the National Education Association -- each asserted the importance of involving faculty members on the local level in efforts to measure learning outcomes. They also warned against relying on the kinds of standardized tests that are used by states in judging K-12 schools for the federal No Child Left Behind Act, because higher education is an even more complex and diverse sector. "As inappropriate as these proposals are in K-12 education, they are even more inappropriate in higher education situations where the goal is not simply to learn content but also to develop critical thinking and interpretive skills," said Smith.

Rhoades argued that the extensive use of adjuncts undermines student achievement, and that a focus on productivity from policy-makers has hampered non-tenure track and tenured faculty members' ability to advise and provide mentorship that helps students -- who are increasingly demographically diverse. "The challenge is that producing better learning outcomes is an inherently labor intensive endeavor," he said.

Gold referred to the AFT's release last month of a policy statement on outcomes assessment and encouraged members to wade into an honest debate. "Genuine discussion of issues such as these has to begin with a willingness to 'hear a discouraging word,'" he said. "Front-line faculty and staff will not agree with every idea that comes down the pike, nor should they; but they and the AFT are strongly committed to engaging in constructive efforts to improve student success."

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