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’re 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, but in measurement hype and jargon. 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.

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