Five weeks into a semester with a four-course load and I’m still learning my students’ names, still trying to read their personalities (and discern our collective identities), still surreptitiously sizing them up as surely as they are doing the same to me.

As we get to know each other we’ve got work to do: texts to read and discuss; papers to write and grade; quizzes, exams, projects, and more. Until early May we’ll go as deep as we can into the subject matter before us. Like thousands of other classroom communities, we’ll confront difficult truths and have our comfortable prejudices unsettled; by turns we’ll be surprised, confused, enlightened, overwhelmed. Hopefully, we will come out on the other side with our knowledge increased and our humanity enlarged.

Also like thousands of other college classrooms, we’ll have another set of concerns before us. This is the age of “assessment” in higher education, in which administrators and accreditors expect measurable, reportable “outcomes”: what do your students know and how do they know it?

Having colonized institutions like medicine and government services, the űber-instrument of outcomes-assessment made its way into K-12 instruction in the early 2000s. So if “assessment” sounds a little like No Child Left Behind for undergraduates that’s because assessment is pretty much No Child Left Behind for undergraduates. In 2005 Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, commissioned a panel on the future of higher education which concluded that colleges and universities should “measure and report meaningful student learning outcomes.” This information, the panel said, should be made available to the public and ought to be “a condition of accreditation.”

Academics and administrators have been hashing this out ever since, arguing with an educational philosophy/mandate born of Bush-era politics (not a little irony here) and arguing with each other about whether, how, and when to implement it. You want Josh and Katie to be critical thinkers? Of course. Prove it, then. Whether your subject is Irish Poetry or Microbiology or the Sociology of Gender, show us how you will test and assess the skill of critical thinking (and a host of others) in your students. 

Reputable counter-commissions and studies that call into question some of the fundamentals of outcomes-assessment have had little influence but they raise interesting concerns. For example, The Study of Undergraduate Learning at the University of Washington determined that writing and critical thinking are not generic skills but rather are “mediated by the disciplines.” It turns out that such skills are learned and applied differently in, say, chemistry than they are in Christian Ethics. The upshot? The attempt to measure broad competencies–assessment’s clarion call–is futile.

The root cause of this push toward assessment (from kindergarten to college) is economic: how will America compete in a sophisticated global economy if we aren’t producing graduates with certain measurable, marketable skills? How will we contribute to advances and innovations in science, technology, and industry if schools can’t adequately demonstrate what their students are learning?

Never mind that No Child Left Behind has been abandoned in secondary education. We have another metaphor, another instrument for measuring achievement and outcomes: Race to the Top. It is telling, though not surprising, that learning in western democracies is almost universally conceived of as a competition. Republican or Democrat, every modern president’s plea for overhauling America’s educational system–no matter how lofty or flowery the rhetoric–comes down to this dreary rationale: we must improve our schools for the sake of capitalism. 


All this can weigh heavy on a teacher’s heart. Even when the learning outcomes have been “embedded” in the syllabus and the exam questions have been reworked to account for  required “broad competencies,” we are still left with one of the foundational truths of classroom pedagogy: that the very nature of the teaching/learning enterprise–instructing, hearing, comprehending–is necessarily partial and incomplete. Professors can never say all that needs to be said; students can never hear all that needs to be heard. Failure is an inescapable part of the process. But this kind of failure is morally instructive; it reveals that education is less about mastery (and the instruments deemed necessary to measure it) and more about the kind of humility required to be a life-long pursuer of truth.  

Finally, assessing the competencies of our students doesn’t address how it is we’re supposed to love them. Indeed, “loving the students you teach” is unintelligible speech within the discourse of “learning outcomes.” But good teachers come to love their students (which doesn’t mean that they always like them) because the art of teaching is an act of giving oneself away without reservation or embarrassment, of regularly making a fool of oneself for the sake of a subject one loves unequivocally. When you do this enough, the love can’t help but spill onto the other people in the room. If you’re lucky, once in a while those other people love you back.   

Presidents and panels, administrators and accreditors don’t seem interested in measuring this kind of outcome. At least we can be thankful for that.