When concerns about the quality of education swept the nation in the 1990s, test results were said to promise a reliable measure of instructional effectiveness. They offered a way to make comparisons across teachers, schools and students, all while assuring good value for Americans’ tax or tuition dollars. Faith in data, long built into U.S. educational practices, now came to support the ideal of schooling as a fair, honest, and well-managed service. The costs to Americans of public or private education would now need to be justified by those doing the educating.
Unfortunately, that justification, like any economic calculation, started from presumptions about what is worth paying for, and increased public spending on poorer communities was not on the table. The weaker performances of under-resourced urban or rural schools called forth not more public funding but less under No Child Left Behind. However precise its format and consistent its application, measurement in this instance served entirely subjective ideas about public good, and old race, class and geographic differentials were reproduced.
That standards-based heart of No Child Left Behind beats on in current advocacy for outcomes as the main drivers of educational design and evaluation. New metrics such as President Obama’s “College Scorecard” have helped make the idea of a measurable educational “return on investment” meaningful to schools and to students and their families. And this strong emphasis on the free market as a means of quality assurance in teaching and learning continues to spread.
For example, in “competency-based learning,” the organization of higher education shifts from the familiar credit hour system to one based on assessments of student mastery of skills and content. This means that familiar units such as courses, or classroom and contact hours, may disappear altogether in some programs. It also means that students pay for credentials not on the basis of certain numbers or types of instructional activities undertaken in a degree program, but on the basis of their own educational achievements.
A kind of industrial model of efficiency and market competition emerges in competency-based education. Advocates for this shift point to lowered tuition costs as classroom time, faculty wages and other institutional expenditures are reduced (the same savings often used to justify the use of MOOCs). And Lumina Foundation’s Jamie Merisotis predicts gains in quality control because colleges and students will undertake measurement of “what is learned” rather than “what is taught.” Federal officials also firmly endorsed competency-based college programs earlier this year by declaring them eligible for Title IV financial aid.
But learning is poorly served by such supposed efficiencies. There is a fundamental inequity in the character of competency-based education as a kind of scrimping: The “saving” of money supposedly in the interest of affordability and inclusion that in actuality achieves only social demarcation. Those students with the least money to spend on college will not be walking away with the same product as their more affluent fellow enrollees, uplifting rhetoric notwithstanding. Budget versions of education, like surgery or car repairs, are no bargain. In such outcomes-focused college curriculums, stripped of “unnecessary” instruction, open-ended, liberal learning easily is deemed wasteful. And so much for the profoundly energizing (and developmentally crucial) experience of encountering messy, uncertain arguments -- of experiencing cognition without identifiable outcomes. The distance will grow between the student who can afford traditional university instruction and the one who needs to save money.
We should be careful not to presume that those who teach in competency-based programs are necessarily weaker or less committed instructors. Yet, if a pre-set body of skills, identifiable upon graduation, is what demarcates one program from another in this kind of higher education, bringing revenue and market share to a school, in whose interest is an inventive classroom experience, or one that leads to diverse intellectual experiences for different students? What faculty member will take pedagogical risks or welcome the challenging student?
There’s an important echo here, I think, with recently renewed interest in K-12 classroom tracking. New proponents of that practice recently interviewed by The New York Times point out how such tracking matches the level, speed and style of teaching more closely to divergent student needs than can any single, unified classroom. It sounds like an inclusive reform. But both trends threaten a kind of separate but equal educational system, reasserting group identities even as they claim to customize education. They do so through projections of how best to distribute resources in our society, and also through more subtle projections of student abilities and the assertion that such abilities may be predicted.
Both propose tiered education on the presumption that underachievement and differentials in life opportunities are not something we can try to prevent. Tracking and competency-based education both assert that solutions to missing or poorly executed education involve reshaping student experiences, not expanding resources. That’s a very different ideology than the one that fueled compensatory programs of the 1970s. Those initiatives managed to accommodate diverse learning styles and paces while also bolstering educational provisions for disadvantaged communities.
Competency-based education, for its part, engages in some extraordinarily selective definitions of efficiency and inclusion. The results-based model of higher education supposedly weds quality control to flexibility; some competency-based programs give equal credit for students’ classroom, online, life-experience and video-, book- or game-based learning. Those students who are shown through assessment to have pertinent skills are credentialed, however those skills were obtained; they need not pay for “unneeded credits.” For federal supporters of this scheme and approving think-tank voices, standards in each subject will reliably determine what is worth knowing and what learning counts. They also assure that the “consumer” will be well-served throughout.
Let’s think about this. A conflict of interest certainly resides in a system whereby educational providers measure learning outcomes in their own institutions. But to be fair, that conflict can afflict any instructional effort, whether good performance promises a school more revenue, more public funding or simply greater prestige. Competency-based education, however, seems systematically to deny criticality about its own operations. It uses only its own terms to judge its success. That’s troubling. If educational standards are conflated with the instruments of industry, we should not be surprised to encounter the self-serving methods of industrial quality control. Here, as in a profitable factory, the system claims a basis in economies and managerial oversight, the supposedly no-lose technics of mass-production. But industry standards invariably best serve their creators.
The multi-tiered and modular have certainly long been the American educational way. The new instructional models simply extend older beliefs in natural distributions of talent and diligence, in inborn differentials of cognition and character. Calling such schooling “diverse,” “flexible,” or “customer focused” will not make it democratic.
In outcomes-focused education, I see strong support for the idea that each individual who enters the classroom, aged 5, 15 or 25, is one with predetermined potential, with an identifiable niche on the ladder of aptitude that will match with a certain amount and kind of instruction. High or low, that ascription of talent is more than merely a subjective judgment, it is an iniquitous one: The customized learning experiences currently being praised proceed from the idea that an individual can be known by such categories and then placed in an appropriate position in a classroom or curriculum. Ultimately, that will also continue with the employment ladder. These so-called innovations don’t promise enriched learning and expanded opportunity, but outward rippling discrimination.
Amy Slaton is a professor of history in the department of history and politics at Drexel University.