Academic Taylorism?: Student Learning Outcomes, Faculty Evaluations, and Workload Issues

By AFT Political Action VP Jim Miller

Back in 2002, your AFT put out a series of informational pieces warning of the rise of the “student learning outcomes” movement in American academia.  We noted that it was important to maintain “a healthy skepticism in the face of the onslaught of new technologies and ‘innovative’ managerial systems.”  The cries for “efficiency” and “accountability,” we argued, were nothing new or innovative, but really a contemporary variation of Taylorism, a philosophy put forth in Fredric W. Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management which, “In the name of increased efficiency and productivity, eliminated the space for ‘unreliable’ human judgment in favor of a more dependable system where the ‘outcomes’ of a workers labor could be measured and quantified.”  First applied to the assembly line, Taylorism soon became the dominant ideology of American business and penetrated many areas of American life.

In the realm of education, the twentieth century might very well be viewed as an ongoing struggle between those who sought to preserve educational values not entirely tied to the marketplace and those bent on applying a “business model” to education in an effort to squeeze desired outcomes (usually well trained workers or research beneficial to business interests) from the public education system without having to bear the brunt of excessive taxes.  More recently, efforts at improving “accountability” have been driven by those interested in privatizing public education or using the declared “failure” of the public education system to argue for increased access to public funds for private educational enterprises.

In our own context we have argued that, “As the trend toward big administration continued, so did the overreliance on part time faculty as a cost cutting strategy and the mania for educational reforms which emphasize the role of education as little else than an adjunct to the marketplace and only  demand the kind of ‘accountability’ that can be quantified, leaving scarce space in discussions of education for ideas that revolve around values and rely on the all-too-subjective human judgment of faculty.  Indeed, frequently, faculty has been seen as an obstacle to the proper functioning of the educational system, rather than its heart . . . Consequently, recent efforts to ‘re-organize’ faculty and make them demonstrate ‘student learning outcomes’ may be further evidence that the gospel of efficiency in educational management has created greater problems than it has solved.”

Also, in 2002, we noted the issues raised by CFT President Marty Hittleman about the new accreditation standards for  California Community Colleges which would demand that faculty demonstrate ill-defined “student learning outcomes” and perhaps divert resources from instruction by creating a new bureaucracy dedicated to measuring them.  The new standards were also of concern because they would tie faculty evaluation to these “outcomes,” erode shared governance, interfere with collective bargaining, give no protection for academic freedom, and grant unprecedented power to chief administrators.  Thus, we argued, we need to be wary of “innovations” in education that sacrifice professional judgment and autonomy and do little to better serve students.

Six years later, the results are starting to come in and they are not good.  In our most recent faculty opinion survey leading up to our next round of negotiations and at several of our recent union meetings, we are beginning to see increased concern that SLO’s are living down to our low expectations.  The sentiments we are hearing, from colleagues, including faculty deeply involved in the effort to implement SLOs, range from “Dump SLO’s” to more measured (pardon the pun) concerns about SLOs being tied to individual faculty evaluations.  We are also hearing from faculty who see SLOs as nothing more than an intellectually vacant exercise in translating everything they already do into the ugly jargon of “SLO speak”—time consuming, yes, but ultimately worthless and a distraction from the real work of teaching.  This new work, some have pointed out, exponentially increases our workload.

One colleague voiced these concerns: “Now we could do all this work pro bono, but for many of us with a LIFE there are limits to the engagement in extracurricular activities.  Thus, much of this work is done on school time.  There are at least two distractions here.  Time is money and diversion from our primary duties.  Hence the costs to the campus could be severe, especially from the latter distraction.  Diversion of badly needed funds for supplies and equipment for our campus to fund SLOs is nonsensical.  There will be a point where student success will decline due to unmet academic needs.   In fact, this is happening now.”

Many of our colleagues have also noted the connections between our own SLO movement and the push by the Bush Administration to transform the accreditation process to better serve the interests of private educational institutions.  Why rush forward, some wonder, when the next presidential election may very well transform the political and educational landscape?  Those who pay attention to the canary in the coal mine which is No Child Left Behind, have observed the absolute failure of those “accountability measures” to help the students in K 12 that most need it.  Indeed, Jonathan Kozol, renowned author of Savage Inequalities and one of the most important scholars of American education today recently went on a hunger strike to protest the reauthorization of NCLB.  He has urged teachers nationwide to resist the implementation of NCLB measures which dumb down our educational system, kill creativity, and punish the poorest kids by imposing unfunded mandates on underperforming schools.

A final, crucial point raised by our colleagues  is that the very “accountability measures” that are being borrowed from the business model have, in fact, not worked for corporate America.  As one person put it:  “Has ‘accountability’ worked for business?  My observation is decidedly not: thousands of jobs lost, CEO salaries skyrocketing, consumer deaths, outsourcing to countries with security risks, etc.”  Is it wise for us to follow the lead of corporate American in the midst of what many critics see as a new Guilded Age of unmitigated greed and corruption?  Perhaps not.

While your AFT does not suspect the motives of well meaning administrators in our district who presented the SLO movement to faculty with the argument that “if we don’t do it ourselves, others will do it to us,” we suspect that seeking to create our own SLOs will not prevent the feared results.  What to do?  Don’t do work that has not been negotiated as part of the existing workload.  Don’t create SLO’s that can be tied to individual faculty evaluations.  Ask hard questions about whether the effort we are engaged in ultimately does anything to better serve our students or is only a new self-justifying set of bureaucratic measures.  We also want to hear more from you as this process unfolds.  Together we can work to assure that the worst scenarios do not come to fruition.