LEAPs and Bounds

Ashley Thorne

David Mulroy, an NAS board member who teaches Classical Languages at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, recently brought to our attention a program at UWM called Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP). It didn’t leap out of nowhere. LEAP was created by the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) to focus “campus practice on fostering essential learning outcomes for all students, whatever their chosen field of study.” LEAP gives “special attention to access and success for students from underserved communities.”  

As often happens with bureaucratic initiatives, they steal ahead with little opposition because they sound so boring that no one pays much attention to them. LEAP has all the cachet of phase three of the Commissar’s fourth five-year plan for increasing tractor productivity in Kazakhstan. It is ennui, wrapped in tedium, inside monotony. 

But never fear. NAS will now perform the immensely valuable public service of explaining what is really going on when the lords of education go a-LEAP-ing. This won’t be easy or short. Get your snack food before you start. Ready?

Learning Outcomes Background

LEAP is part of the broad movement to measure “learning outcomes” in college classrooms. NAS president Peter Wood has written about this trend in several articles, including “Seat Time at the AAC&U.” He tells how the assessment movement has developed:

In fact, “outcomes assessment” had been gaining ground with accreditors since the mid 1990s. “Outcomes assessment” is a stepchild of the Total Quality Management (TQM) movement that was popular in American business in the 1980s. Applied to higher education, “outcomes assessment” initially meant asking colleges to develop tools to show that students were reliably learning what the college claimed to teach. But like TQM, “outcomes assessment” was tied to a concept of “continuous improvement.” The goal was to encourage colleges to collect data on what worked well and what could be enhanced.

The major challenge was that in the eyes of “outcomes assessment” advocates, the grades that students received were of little use as an assessment tool. That’s because grades might measure individual performance in the class but they showed nothing whether the class itself advanced larger curricular aims.

As the regional accreditors became enthusiastic about “outcomes assessment,” colleges and universities had to scramble to find ways to measure things they had previously taken for granted and some things that are probably intrinsically unmeasurable.

Great Books expert David Clemens, in a 2003 Inside English article “Five Myths of Assessment,” told how the rise of Outcomes Based Education (OBE) was attractive to both the Right and the Left:

The Right saw OBE as a means to accountability, productivity, and particularizing standards. The Left saw OBE as an engine for social change, attitude engineering, and infusing ideology into curriculum.

Where does LEAP fit on this spectrum of projected hopes?

You Value That? Didn’t This Class Teach You Anything?

The AAC&U, although not an accreditor, is one of the foremost advocates of outcomes assessments. Its LEAP project identifies four “Essential Learning Outcomes” (ELOs):

1.      Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World

2.      Intellectual and Practical Skills

3.      Personal and Social Responsibility

4.      Integrative Learning

Brace yourself. No MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over) with ELO in this class. Why are there four ELOs, you might wonder, instead of two or six or sixty? Are we touching the fundamental principles of the universe? The quarks of education? Note what gets jammed together and what gets left out. All knowledge about culture, the physical, and the natural worlds makes up one ELO. Which seems to mean that history matters only as a subordinate aspect of culture, and knowledge of great men and women matters not at all. Scan the Four Great ELOs and ask where knowledge of God, theological inquiry, or the transcendent has any claim whatsoever on the goals of education. Guess not. How about aesthetics, beauty, art, music? Maybe those get swept in with human culture or practical skill. But you get the sense they don’t matter that much to the architects of ELO.

Actually, the LEAP-ites explain their logic in a document titled College Learning for the New Global Century. Well, “logic” is perhaps not the right word. But the Four Great ELOs have a genealogy, sort of like the genealogy of the Gods in Hesiod’s Theogony, where Chaos gave birth to Darkness and Night. In this case, Multiyear Dialogue gave birth to Greater Expectations and Taking Responsibility. Though Hesiod pretty much covers the same territory, AAC&U’s modern version goes as follows:

This listing [of the Four Great ELOs] was developed through a multiyear dialogue with hundreds of colleges and universities about needed goals for student learning; analysis of a long series of recommendations and reports from the business community; and analysis of the accreditation requirements for engineering, business, nursing, and teacher education. The findings are documented in previous publications of the Association of American Colleges and Universities: Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College (2002), Taking Responsibility for the Quality of the Baccalaureate Degree (2004), and Liberal Education Outcomes: A Preliminary Report on Achievement in College (2005).

So much for where the ELOs came from. Down at the level of actual, earthly institutions, the existence of the ELOs tends to be taken as given. The question is how to get along with business. What do the ELOs want from us? What sacrifices do they expect? How best to worship them? Who shall be their priests? The answers may vary from one university to another. But since we were cued into the ELO cult as it is practiced at U Wisconsin, we will pick up the story there.

At U Wisconsin, each of the ELOs is evaluated based on the student’s learning in the cognitive dimension (“what the student will be able to KNOW”), skills dimension (“what the student will be able to DO”), and affective dimension (“what students will be able to demonstrate they VALUE and APPRECIATE”). Faculty members are required to record outcomes in a web database called WEAVEonline that is used by over 100 American colleges and universities for the purpose of documenting learning outcomes. WEAVEonline, a money-making venture arising out of the assessment movement, was developed by Virginia Commonwealth University.

That education’s effectiveness is being measured by what students “VALUE and APPRECIATE” (emphasis in the original) ought to give us pause. Is it the duty of college professors to instill particular beliefs in students? Or does attempting to measure students’ values open the door to ideological indoctrination?

Perhaps the people behind LEAP will give us a clue. Its National Leadership Council members include Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University and champion of racial preferences in his 1998 book The Shape of the River, and Martha Nussbaum, diversiphile and author of the 1997 book Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Also in leadership are Mary Sue Coleman, die-hard affirmative action proponent and president of the University of Michigan, and Sylvia Hurtado, director of the Higher Education Research Institute and crusader for racial and gender diversity in higher education.

So it might be reasonable to wonder whether LEAP has an implied bias towards the sort of education that favors identity politics. Many of its architects explicitly favor a form of higher education that puts racial preferences center stage. Does LEAP do that too?

LEAP does seem to be coupled with forms of racial preferences. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, engagement with LEAP, categorized as general education reform, is combined with the Milwaukee Commitment (to “diversity”). The commitment is a strategic plan to recruit increased numbers of “TRE/D” students and faculty members to “achieve critical mass at UWM.” TRE/D stands for “targeted racial/ethnic and disadvantaged.”

We have some other clues as to LEAP’s ideology. On the project’s blog, Kevin Hovland, the AAC&U’s Director of Global Learning and Curricular Change, expresses disappointment that the College Sustainability Report Card did not measure institutions’ teaching on sustainability or students’ mastery of it. He wrote:

Many institutions find sustainability a useful common ground for developing interdisciplinary approaches to general education. I recently learned that Furman College has introduced a new requirement that all students take at least one course addressing “humans and the natural environment.” Curriculum development for such courses is coordinated by Furman’s new David E. Shi Center for Sustainability. Is your campus doing something similar?  Let us know and AAC&U will eagerly spread the word. And I will look forward to a time when commitment to sustainability is judged by student learning as well as by the current criteria.

NAS has researched the campus sustainability movement for the last two years, and we have published our findings (over 30 articles)—that sustainability is about one-third environmentalism and two-thirds anti-capitalism. We were glad to find that the College Sustainability Report Card does not include teaching, research, or other academic aspects concerning sustainability. Leaders of the AAC&U, however, encourage the re-casting of this shady ideology as the foundation of higher education.

We’ve observed that the sustainability ideology, which is relatively new to the American college campus, is bidding to replace the diversity ideology as the favorite instrument for advancing “progressive” political values. The AAC&U document, released in 2007, is just old enough to be stuck in yesterday’s ideological clichés, and the cast of imposing characters on its National Leadership Council are mostly people who gained prominence by means of their skill as apologists for the “diversity” credo. They have to re-tool now to get with the sustainability program. Life is so unfair. But we need to understand LEAP as yesterday’s exercise in faddishness, despite the wishful thinking on display in the title College Learning for the New Global Century. Sorry guys. It should now be, College Learning for the End Times.  

Blindfold Students and Spin Them Around

In addition to the four Essential Learning Outcomes (ELOs), LEAP sets out seven “Principles of Excellence”:

1.      Aim High – and Make Excellence Inclusive: Make the Essential Learning Outcomes a Framework for the Entire Educational Experience, Connecting School, College, Work, and Life

2.      Give Students a Compass: Focus Each Student’s Plan of Study on Achieving the Essential Learning Outcomes—and Assess Progress

3.      Teach the Arts of Inquiry and Innovation: Immerse All Students in Analysis, Discovery, Problem Solving, and Communication, Beginning in School and Advancing in College

4.      Engage the Big Questions: Teach through the Curriculum to Far-Reaching Issues—Contemporary and Enduring—in Science and Society, Cultures and Values, Global Interdependence, the Changing Economy, and Human Dignity and Freedom

5.      Connect Knowledge with Choices and Action: Prepare Students for Citizenship and Work through Engaged and Guided Learning on “Real-World” Problems

6.      Foster Civic, Intercultural, and Ethical Learning: Emphasize Personal and Social Responsibility, in Every Field of Study

7.      Assess Students’ Ability to Apply Learning to Complex Problems: Use Assessment to Deepen Learning and to Establish a Culture of Shared Purpose and Continuous Improvement

These are all nice-sounding principles. Students should engage the big questions, be able to solve complex problems, and learn through inquiry and analysis. We intend to throw a little cold water on some of these principles, but let’s first consider the sheer banality of the list. What would the alternatives be? This? 

1.      Aim Low and Make Excellence Exclusive. Most of what goes on here doesn’t matter anyway.

2.      Blindfold Students and Spin Them Around

3.      Teach Mimicry and Dull Repetition.

4.      Emphasize Trivia.

5.      Connect Ignorance with Indecision. Remember, we want them to be followers.

6.      Foster Angry, Prideful Identity Groups and Moralistic Grandstanding.

7.      Assess Students to the Lowest Common Denominator.

But back to the actual “Principles of Excellence.” Probe the pleasant language and these principles become more puzzling. “Make excellence inclusive,” has a hidden meaning. We’ve seen it before, back in May when Virginia Tech affirmed its “commitment to inclusive excellence” after NAS and FIRE exposed the university’s illiberal policy requiring faculty members to prove their service to diversity as a condition for promotion and tenure. In his article, “Virginia Tech’s ‘Inclusive’ Rodomontade,” Dr. Wood interpreted the phrase’s meaning:

“Inclusive excellence” is based on the idea that different social and cultural groups have their own standards for excellence that cannot be shared or in most cases even translated across group boundaries. The excellence pursued by white Americans is one thing; that pursued by African-Americans another. The excellence pursued by women is one thing; that pursued by men is another. Under the doctrine of “inclusive excellence,” a university makes clear that it recognizes and values the distinctive excellences of each and every campus group.

Well, not really. In practice it means having separate (and lower) expectations for some groups than others. A simple translation of “inclusive excellence" is that it is affirmative action for ideas. Ideas that are too weak, too flawed, too unsupported to withstand critical inspection get a sharply discounted admission ticket under the reign of “inclusive excellence.”

LEAP appears to buy into the same concept of “inclusive excellence.” And emphasizing “personal and social responsibility in every field of study” sounds dangerously close to “use the classroom to encourage political activism.”

Assess What?

Fueled by the language of “access” and “inclusive excellence,” the assessment movement is flourishing. Last week the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) reported (download executive summary pdf) that about 75% of American colleges and universities use a common set of learning outcomes applied to all students. NILOA found that 92% employ at least one outcome assessment. The report quotes from “The college calculation: How much does higher education matter?” printed in the New York Times Magazine this September:

Colleges… do so little to measure what students learn between freshman and senior years. So doubt lurks: how much does a college education – the actual teaching and learning that happens on campus – really matter?

This is a question worth asking. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) recently unveiled its new website, WhatWillTheyLearn.com, which rates institutions based on whether they require students to take courses in core subjects: composition, literature, foreign language, United States history, economics, mathematics, and science. The idea is to see whether students are taking the subjects essential to a liberal higher education and therefore, that they graduate having learned something. As curricula become more and more student-centered and flexible, are students still getting a solid education?The AAC&U, the NILOA, and ACTA all share the concern that students aren’t learning what they should, and that this undermines the value of the college degree. The proponents of the assessment movement, however, are not worried that students are missing out on courses on the American constitution. They are more interested in quantifying “outcomes” and tallying up success points. The students may not know what the Federalist Papers are but four years at an ELO-ized university is certainly going to give them an Excellently Inclusive Big Question Compass with a glow-in-the-dark Culture of Shared Purpose and Continuous Improvement.

Low Jumping

One reason for the popularity of the assessment movement is the unpopularity of assigning grades and the decreased significance of grades due to grade inflation. A commenter on a Chronicle of Higher Education note on assessment argues:

Grading student work has lost credibility as a measure of student learning for many stake-holders, who want another way to measure. Put simply, what does it tell me if Sally got an A minus but Jessica got a B in English 101? What did Sally learn that Jessica did not? The problem with grading is that it is an average of Something, but the Something it not publicly accessible. Moreover, the "unit of control" in grading is the individual student.

But there are two main problems with measuring student learning outcomes. First, it assumes that the goal is for all students to achieve equal outcomes. This is inherently problematic because people aren’t equal. We can’t all do a two-foot vertical jump, even if someone shows us how and we practice for weeks. We don’t all earn the same income or the same grades in school. That’s why even the most dedicated and patient college professors, who explain concepts carefully in class and give extra help outside it, can’t be held liable if some students fail or finish the class without getting much out of it. But assessing education based on learning outcomes instead of grades motivates faculty members to set the standard low in order to be able to report success. We can all jump three inches high.The second problem, as Dr. Wood explained above, is that assessment tries to measure results that are often un-measurable, especially in the liberal arts. It snaps the creative tension between technical practicality and intellectual exploring that is necessary for higher education to flourish. As he puts it:

At bottom the assessment movement is anti-intellectual. It emphasizes the aspects of education that are easily standardized, undercuts disciplinary expertise, and builds incentives for faculty members to set low and easily achievable goals for their courses.

Dr. Mulroy adds:

to me the worst part is the way LEAP ignores specific disciplinary goals. When I teach Latin, for example, every aspect of my teaching is subordinated to the goal of helping my students to learn how to read Latin. These ELOs relegate the craft of teaching specific subjects like that to the margins.

Such skepticism appears to be the norm among faculty members. According to the NILOA survey, “Among large research universities, almost 80 percent cited a lack of faculty engagement as the most serious barrier to student-assessment projects.” George D. Kuh, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, has an idea for motivating professors. He says that faculty members’ annual reviews should include assessment, and that colleges should dedicate more administrators to overseeing the process.
Indeed, many faculty members believe outcomes assessment undercuts the basic purposes of higher education and isn’t worth the tedium and time it requires. Dr. Mulroy views it as “at best a great waste of time and resources,” and NAS public relations director Glenn Ricketts, who teaches political science at Raritan Valley Community College, recalls his college’s efforts some twenty years ago to adopt learning outcomes assessment: “It was a colossal waste of the faculty’s time—constantly having to revise our course materials to resemble contractual agreements.” Perhaps “phildept,” a commenter on the Chronicle, says it best:

The main problem with outcomes assessment is with the outcomes. To the extent that they oversimplify education and leave out the more ambitious and wisest purposes (e.g. self-reflection, awareness of limits of current thinking, honing of commitments to service, inspiration to emulate insightful writers) of university educations, then they dilute our possible achievements.

Leaping Lizards

LEAP—Liberal Education and America’s Promise—shod with the jump-soles of its diversiphile leadership and commitments to “inclusiveness,” leaps over some of the fundamentals of academe. As part of the outcomes assessment movement, the LEAPers believe they can transcend the kind of academic rigor, disciplinary teaching, and faculty discretion that lie at the heart of higher education.

Why do they believe this? Many of the architects of this program are very intelligent and well-informed, and certainly well-intentioned. Yet they have ended up with a recipe for educational superficiality streaked with ideology. Perhaps part of the answer is that LEAP is founded on anxiety. The university leaders who lent their names to it know that contemporary higher education in America is, all too often, an intellectual mess. It cannot justify itself on the evidence that graduates of expensive colleges and universities have learned that much, developed that much in the way of sophisticated skills, matured into adults of estimable character, taken possession of their own civilization, emerged as cultured or rounded human beings, or shown themselves ready for demanding jobs. A few achieve all these things. Many achieve little on any of these scales.

Tom Wood in a series of articles for this website marshaled the mounting evidence that students who attend college generally do learn something, and part of what they learn is indeed “critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving, and written communication.” No matter how undistinguished the college, students advanced a little towards these goals. No matter how ungifted the student, if he sticks with his program, he advances a bit. We know this, or at least we have evidence for it, because the Council for Aid to Education (CAE) has been running a test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), and the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) has been studying the results of that test.

The test and the follow-up study are further testament to the broad anxiety about the quality of learning in American higher education. We wouldn’t be searching for such reassurance if it was plain that colleges do their job. The anxiety was also on display during the period in which former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings convened her Commission on the Future of Higher Education and then tried to use its findings as the basis for advancing her own version of “outcomes assessment.”

The doubts about the worthiness of our system of higher education seem to us at NAS to be well-founded. But how do those who have deep investment in the current system respond to these doubts? They are partly responsible for creating the mess, so their inclination might be to minimize the problems. And that is part of what LEAP does. It sets the criteria—the ELOs—by which the dinosaurs of Leftist academe would prefer to be judged. Ask the Ankylosaurus the best criteria for judging dinosaurs and he might well mention (1) a low center of gravity, (2) nice dorsal spikes, (3) a hefty club tail, and (4) a pointy nose. A T-Rex, by contrast, might think tiny arms, big teeth, good jaws, and two legs altogether more admirable.

LEAP is the Anklylosaurus of self-justifying mediocrity in higher education. It sets out the criteria that the old guard would like to maintain, but dresses them up as skills for the “New Global Century.” That’s called wishful thinking. Nothing comes more easily to leftist academics as to see themselves as riding the wave of the future, even as they stand there with their surf boards in the middle of Death Valley.

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