Why We, the Faculty, Need to Own and Embrace Student Learning Outcomes: A Cautionary History and Political Lesson

Chair, Accreditation and SLO Committee

A recent letter from the president of the California Federation of Teachers has asked the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) to amend two standards, stating ACCJC's apparent intrusion into collective bargaining in Standard III.A.1.c. and into academic freedom regarding syllabi in Standard II.A.6 (see http://www.cft.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=287:hit…). As was evident at several meetings and breakouts at the Fall Plenary 2008, this letter again brought to the forefront the voices of those who oppose student learning outcomes (SLOs). Anger and/or frustration directed toward ACCJC also became apparent, perhaps fueled by so many colleges now facing sanction. Finally, some expressed their opinion that a change in the leadership in Washington, D.C., will mean a relaxation of the federal demands for accountability in education, despite President-elect Obama's stated support for No Child Left Behind and other accountability measures.

Many are not aware that National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), the federal committee that approves college accrediting bodies, has placed the charge of ensuring that SLOs are defined and assessed in the hands of the regional accrediting agencies. This was a blow to the Secretary of Education who wanted the federal government to define the accountability measures and directly impose them on all institutions of higher learning, including writing outcomes, assessing all classes and all students, and putting the information into a national database, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). The six regional accrediting bodies in the U.S., including ACCJC, successfully ensured that they were the ones to oversee student learning outcomes and assessment, instead. Their standards clearly charge us, as faculty experts, with the responsibility for writing the outcomes and assessing them. Yet some faculty believe that the upcoming change in administration bodes well for altering this charge, despite the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act. They seem equally unaware that though the accrediting agencies were successful in defeating the aims of the Secretary of Education, congressional leaders from both sides of the house told them that they had only five years to clearly prove that they, and the faculty they were depending upon, could assess SLOs and did not need the government to do it instead. If the accrediting agencies are not successful, the kinds of changes the Secretary of Education wanted will come to pass when the Higher Education Act comes up for renewal in 2013.

This is where the cautionary history and political lesson enters. My field, history, faced a major battle in the 1990s over the K-12 National History Standards that peaked during the Clinton administration. In 1992, the National Endowment for the Humanities, under Lynne Cheney, and the Department of Education asked the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to write the K-12 U.S. and World History Standards. For almost three years, the National Center for History held meetings with elementary, middle school, and high school teacher task forces, academic his-educators to devise the standards. A national council, which included people appointed by Cheney, approved the standards.

However, in October, 1994, Lynne Cheney attacked the standards in a Wall Street Journal article titled "The End of History," because she disagreed with the emphasis and direction that K-12 history teachers, academic historians, and others had devised. Her disdain was so vociferous that the Senate voted 99-to-1 in a non-binding resolution to support her call to defund the project. In short, the standards (http://nchs.ucla.edu/standards/) developed by the experts in the field and the opinions of Lynne Cheney http://www.historyplace.com/pointsofview/cheney.htm) clashed, creating a huge controversy that spilled into the Clinton administration (albeit with a Republican Congress). Even Richard Riley, Clinton's Secretary of Education, decried the new standards.

When the federal government has the ultimate power to determine standards, when faculty are not considered the experts, the true value of education and academic freedom are at stake.

The standards developed and controlled by faculty discipline experts are the only way to ensure academic freedom and educational standards that are not politically motivated and controlled.

When faculty are in charge of developing SLOs they are free from the inaccuracies and skewed political pandering that occurs when the federal government makes the curricular decisions. Unlike the case of the history standards, which are national, we have been given the opportunity to establish our own locally-defined outcomes as part of our professional and academic duties. We define what we want our students to be able to do when they leave our classes. Do we need to have these in our syllabi? This is a local decision, though the language for Standard II says that learning objectives as defined in our Course Outlines of Record (COR) should be in our syllabi. Aren't our course objectives, as established in our CORs, our contract with our students? Don't we ensure that any student taking any section of a particular course will have the same course objectives despite different instructors, different methods and modes of teaching, and different assignments designed to assess students' work? Do we need to place SLOs in our Course Outlines of Record or have them as addenda? This again is a local decision. As public institutions, the SLOs need to be available for members of the public, including our students, but each college determines how this will be done.

Having seen a fairly recent attempt to undo standards created by the experts in the field, any attempts to have standards imposed by the Department of Education or any other external body would be the ultimate undermining of academic freedom. The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act has provided faculty with the opportunity to define our own student learning outcomes. Each of the 110 California community colleges has its unique culture. Even on the 110 campuses, departments and disciplines have their own culture. This is why it is essential that we engage our colleagues in discussions that result in establishing and assessing SLOs.

Although we can hope that a new administration and a new Secretary of Education will not impose standards with the same fervor, experts at all level of higher education warn that political party changes will not diminish this growing demand for accountability and the threat of politicians determining what we teach (see, for example, the October and November 2008 articles by Judith S. Eaton, President of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation at http://www.chea.org/index.asp#InsideAccred). In the wake of the financial collapse that we are currently experiencing, accountability measures will likely only get stronger, not weaker. And as the faculty members with the expertise, we need to be the ones defining them. This will require a pro-active posture, not a dismissive or antagonistic one.