The Problem with Outcomes

In education discussion, the word “outcome” bombilates around us. Educators remind themselves a thousand times a day that student results will tell them how well they (both students and teachers) are doing. Not only every unit, but every lesson, every activity must have an outcome. Whatever isn’t productive should be tossed.

The “outcome” movement began around 1990, when Chester E. Finn, Jr., and others argued that schools and school initiatives should be judged by concrete results (including but not limited to test scores). The movement hit some political snags but eventually took hold; today, test scores in particular determine which schools and teachers stay and which ones go, which policies have succeeded and which ones not. Paradoxically, such focus on outcomes can limit the outcomes themselves. We start acting like cartoon bees, producing honey that won’t feed us but that looks good on the screen.

In his 1990 article “The Biggest Reform of All” (Phi Delta Kappan 71, no. 8, 584–592), Finn defined education itself as outcome:

Under the old conception (dare I say paradigm?), education was thought of as process and system, effort and intention, investment and hope. To improve education meant to try harder, to engage in more activity, to magnify one’s plans, to give people more services, and to become more efficient in delivering them.

Under the new definition, now struggling to be born, education is the result achieved, the learning that takes root when the process has been effective. Only if the process succeeds and learning occurs will we say that education happened. Absent evidence of such a result, there is no education—however many attempts have been made, resources deployed, or energies expended.

Granted, this makes sense at first. A focus on results seems tough-minded, rational, and practical. It appeals to those who tire of wishy-washy talk (which abounds in education discussion). But when we start talking outcomes, outcomes, outcomes, we empty the room of sense all over again. In giving results so much clout, we neglect their substance. I will explain in a moment how this can happen.

I am not about to argue, as many do, that much of education is unmeasurable. That’s true but insufficient as an argument. The problem lies not in measurement itself but in the hype and jargon surrounding it. It is crude and trumpeted measurement, not measurement overall, that weakens our schools and curricula.

Outcomes are no new concept in education. In the United States and abroad, for centuries, students have been required to pass tests in order to enter selective high schools and colleges. But educators, parents, and students assumed that some would do better on the tests than others, and that a student might to better in one subject than in another. If you didn’t do so well on the math portion of the SAT, well, maybe you just weren’t a good test-taker, or maybe you weren’t strong in math. Tests had consequences, but we also took them in stride.

Today, we frown on tolerance of poor performance. Students can do much more than we often assume. Ability counts for something, we admit, but hard work and good instruction count for much more. Thus, according to reformers, schools must raise student performance no matter what it takes. No excuses. If they don’t, they are showing their incompetence or lack of will.

Performance of what, though? When we speak of performance in the abstract, we make little sense. We lose sight of the discrepancy between the subject matter and the standardized test. Reformers often assume that the tests are testing what students should be learning; often this is not so. In fact, the more advanced the instruction, the more remote it will be from standardized tests (excluding Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests), and the more remote it should be.

I currently teach philosophy at my secondary school. (My roles there include advising, observing, and teaching.) My tenth-grade students just finished reading Book I of Plato’s Republic. They learned to trace the steps of Socrates’ arguments and evaluate both the logic and the conclusions. I have asked them to identify Thrasymachus’s initial definition of justice and to explain (a) how Socrates challenges it; (b) how Thrasymachus revises his definition; and (c) how Socrates refutes him. These are outcomes, indeed, but they don’t match what’s on the ELA test, and they don’t come in a single lesson.

“Wait,” someone might object. “Aren’t these the very skills that the ELA test measures?” Not quite. For one thing, analyzing Plato is different from analyzing a test passage. Second, the New York State ELA test does not always reward good thinking. One of the sillier tasks is the “critical lens” essay, in which students must interpret a quote, agree or disagree with it, and substantiate their opinion with details from any two literary texts. The task is difficult precisely because of its incoherence; for this reason, schools spend a great deal of time preparing for it. If I were teaching ELA instead of philosophy, I might have to spend time on it too.

“Come on,” someone else might say. “Aren’t you setting up a straw man? We have kids who struggle with basic reading and writing. Tasks like the ‘critical lens’ essay are really for them, to see whether they can put a paragraph together and cite details. Let’s worry about Plato later, once we get this much taken care of.” But there’s part of the problem. If we consider Plato a luxury, then we probably regarded Stevenson, Milne, Carroll, and Grahame as luxuries, too. If the “critical lens” essay is high priority, then so are low-level texts and strategy lessons. In the name of results, we promote banal topics and skills.

Now, tests have limitations even at their best. Even if they reflect superb curricula, they do not capture all that has been learned. The more challenging the course, the more uneven the performance may be, especially at the outset. If students don’t do well, it may be that they’re facing new challenges. Moreover, not all learning happens within the course’s time frame; I have learned a great deal from courses long after they were over. In addition, not all good work on tests gets rewarded. Scoring rubrics rarely credit the exceptional insight or unusual approach. So, even if we have near-perfect tests, we should not cede our judgment to them.

The best policy would be to exercise discernment. We should develop fine curricula and accompanying tests. We should scrutinize results and adjust instruction as needed. All along, we should remember what matters: the works, ideas, and problems that students encounter; the long pursuit of excellence and virtue; the practice of skills into grace; and the turning of problems in the mind.

Finn may be right in a sense. Education may indeed be the result achieved—but only if we are trying to achieve something worthy. We must not get too worked up over fireworks and fries. The best results may not be the ones we see right now, and the ones we see right now may not be worth the clamor.



Fiction Is Not Fluff

A slew of recent articles have reported on the push for more nonfiction in schools around the country. The Common Core State Standards specify that by twelfth grade, 70 percent of a student’s assigned reading should be “informational” text, and 30 percent “literary” text. This ratio applies to the curriculum across the subjects, but English teachers are under pressure to squeeze more nonfiction in their courses. After all, they will be judged on their students’ performance on tests.

Nonfiction is fine, but the pressure is not. In pushing nonfiction because it is nonfiction (or its non-equivalent, “informational text”), we are hurtling into a big mistake.

The rationale for the ratio is that students need to read widely. They must be able to understand informational texts in order to succeed in college and careers. Unfortunately, this argument often carries overtones of hostility toward fiction and literature overall. If nonfiction is serious, essential, practical, and real, then fiction, according to some, must be a waste of time. A commenter on Jay Mathews’ blog complains that students don’t know how to read closely, because they have been fed a diet of “feelings books” instead of texts that explain how things work or what happened. Now, this may be true, but it has little to do with fiction or nonfiction. A nonfiction book may be primarily a “feelings book,” whereas a work of fiction, drama, or poetry may be intellectually and aesthetically complex.

The nonfiction mandate (mixed with rumor and anxiety) comes in response to a lack. Many elementary and middle schools around the country devote large portions of the day to “literacy blocks,” where students practice reading strategies (finding the main idea, inferring meaning, etc.) on books of their own choice. Little or no subject-matter instruction occurs during these blocks. As a result, many children enter high school with scant background knowledge across the subjects. Many continue to struggle with basic reading. The problem affects students, teachers, and schools. A student might drop out of school, a teacher might lose a job, and a school might face closure, in large part because of curricular deficiencies in the early years.

Thus it makes sense to have students read across the subjects—to build their knowledge on a wide range of topics. This will ultimately make them stronger readers of literature as well as science and history. For some, it will make school interesting. Some students may find themselves engrossed in the anatomy of a beetle or the history of a river. It will enrich future courses as well; teachers can build on knowledge and insight that students have already acquired.

Very well. But it is folly to privilege “informational text” over literature—to imply that it is more serious, important, academic, advanced, or useful. We see this tendency even in this year’s ELA tests (or what little information we have about them). In a New York State test scoring guide, two sample tasks involve judging a fictional text against “facts.” Third graders are asked to read an Algonquin legend and then explain why it could not happen in real life. Sixth graders are asked to read a Nigerian folktale and an article on the sun and the moon, and then “explain how the folktale would have to change if it were based on the facts in the article.” Granted, these are just samples, but they suggest an effort judge fiction by fact. If we continue in this vein, we’ll be in deep trouble, and so will the students who have to tackle these strange tasks.

Such privileging of fact is not good preparation for college. Each field has its language and logic. It is as misguided to insist that literature be true to fact as it is to turn mathematics into a series of word problems. Moreover, any serious study involves play. In literature, we thrill in the paradox, the impossible, the imagined, the uncertain, even as we focus on details and structures. We stop to admire passages without knowing exactly why, even after years of analyzing them. We laugh and laugh over the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Tristram Shandy, Akaky Akakievich, and Humpty Dumpty. Other subjects, too, have their uncertainties, rumination, and delight. In mathematics, insights do not come when called. No matter how much we learn about methods, we are often left blundering, turning a problem this way and that, until suddenly the solution comes through. In history, no structure is perfect; we search for the one that will explain events clearly without oversimplifying them. Facts are part of each field but not the sum total. If they were, the fields would be dead.

The domain of literature is nothing to scoff at. Literature is made-up stuff, yet it takes us to old truths—not through data, not through statistics, but through story, image, rhythm. It shows us things we might not otherwise see; it reminds us of things we heard long ago. Take this passage from The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy:

Henchard bent and kissed her cheek. The moment and the act he had contemplated for weeks with a thrill of pleasure; yet it was no less than a miserable insipidity to him now that it had come. His reinstation of her mother had been chiefly for the girl’s sake, and the fruition of the whole scheme was such dust and ashes as this.

Even out of context, the passage shows mastery of language and form. The final phrase brings to mind the words from the Anglican burial service, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” (as well as Genesis 18:27 and Job 30:19). There’s a funeral in Henchard’s mind, a death of a fantasy and plan, combined with a “fruition,” a dream come miserably true. There is a cadence, a lasting quality, in the way the passage ends. This passage and the novel demand close reading; there is nothing trivial here.

Granted, not many students read Hardy in school or elsewhere today. But they certainly won’t read it if English teachers cut down on literature. Novels (and even poems and plays) will get short shrift; in some districts, apparently, teachers have been instructed not to teach more than one novel per year (see the fourth comment). (I’d be content with two superb novels per year; there’s every reason to make room for lyric poetry, epic, drama, short stories, and essays. But it should depend largely on the course.) Some students may read such works on their own, but most will not; they won’t see the point of doing so. Thus, a mandate intended to lift the intellectual level may end up bringing it down.

There are practical problems, moreover, with a fiction/nonfiction ratio. First, the definitions of fiction and nonfiction get fuzzy in places. Where would Homer’s Iliad fall? What about Plato’s Republic? What about Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio,” Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, or Auden’s “September 1, 1939”? If you answered fiction-nonfiction-nonfiction-nonfiction-fiction-fiction, you’re probably right by educators’ standards, but the terms seem somewhat arbitrary here. All of these works are worth reading; all could be included in a first-rate curriculum. What does it matter whether they count as fiction or nonfiction?

Second, there is no adequate way to measure the ratios. Shall it be by number of works? By word count? By some formula that weighs word count against difficulty level? Any approach will render itself absurd. The number of titles is certainly misleading, as some works are much more demanding than others. The same is true for word count. A formula will only prove frustrating; it could wield far too much influence over the actual selection of works. Teachers will find themselves testing various combinations on the formula until something passes. Out of anxiety, schools will err on the safe side and eliminate a good deal of literature from their curriculum. When people must follow foolish directives, they will often do foolish things.

What should schools do instead? There’s nothing wrong with including more nonfiction for its merits. Yes, students should be reading historical materials in history class. In science class, they could certainly read the textbook, and there may be room for classic scientific works and modern articles as well. In English class, students should read literature and literary nonfiction and perhaps other materials that shed light on them. The focus should be not on the proportions, but on the substance. In a good curriculum, the proportions will come on their own.

But policymakers get ruffled over the idea of a good curriculum. What is it? Should schools decide this for themselves? What if their definitions vary widely? How can we ensure any level of accountability? In addition, isn’t it likely that schools will find some rationale for what they’re already doing? All of these are worthy concerns, but let’s not assume that schools are devoid of good ideas and practice. There are excellent curricula that could inspire others directly and indirectly. There are teachers who create and teach substantial and memorable courses. We don’t need a uniform curriculum, but we can define some common elements and shape individual curricula from there. We could identify a few works that all students should study, and leave the remaining selections to the schools.

There is no substitute for good sense and good education. The push for more nonfiction (because it’s nonfiction) will not raise the level of learning in schools; it may even depress it. What’s needed is careful thought about what we’re actually teaching—the subjects and works themselves—and how we can make our offerings stronger and more beautiful. Yes, more beautiful too. Beauty is not a frill.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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