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May-June 2011

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Letter to the Editor: May/June 2011

Ted Marchese's response to my article in the March /April 2011 issue of Change, in which I take exception to higher education's application of continuous quality improvement language to learning outcomes, offers a fairly conventional review of our current approaches to assessment and the CQI model. But I, like many, remain unconvinced—particularly in regard to the logic of CQI. CQI is not an outcomes model, cycle time is a real issue in assessment, and misplaced concepts and assessments continue to disappoint us.

CQI remains, as Marchese notes, “a process-improvement model.” As such, conventional CQI focuses on manipulating inputs to arrive at pre-determined outputs. Industry, on the other hand, is transitioning to flexible models that constantly redefine and reinvent their organizations and their outcomes. Higher education too can and should move in the direction of constant reinvention rather than using increasingly obsolete tools and vocabularies that simply attempt to fine-tune predefined, fixed outcomes. That's just positioning the institution rather than individual faculty members as the sage on the stage.

Marchese down-plays cycle times and intervals of measurement. For programs such as nursing where there are major skills components, key indicators can be quite concise and immediate. But the recent study of links between prerequisite math courses and student performance in the closely controlled curriculum of the Air Force Academy again demonstrates how hard it is in academe to establish the kind of direct links between processes and outcomes that the industrial world and CQI take for granted. Approaches that he does call attention to—such as problem- based learning, portfolios, capstone courses—are actually pointing away from rigid attention to process toward flexibility. And the new work by AAC&U and the Lumina Foundation are going even further. The Lumina report is particularly interesting in describing the degree outcomes they suggest as illustrative rather than definitive.

Marchese argues that “it has been a dozen years, at least, since we've seen an article or conference session on CQI in the classroom,” but then he tells us that continuous improvement has reappeared in the work of our “deepest thinkers.” He hopes this reemergence “does not mean the industrial model” but is rather “smarter and better.” I hope so too. My point was not to critique the need for or logic of improvement but rather the methods and vocabulary currently in play. But I see little evidence in the current public debate or in the institutional assessment community to encourage me.

I realize that the suggestions that I made toward the end of my article can be seen as rather small scale and localized in light of the scale of the issue. But as a frontline practitioner experienced in both industry and post-secondary education, I can only add my voice to the rising chorus of concern that we have not been headed in the right direction and offer ideas that might lead to small victories against ambiguity.

Please email comments on any article in this issue to Margaret Miller, the executive editor, at pmiller@virginia.edu, or go to www.changemag.org where, under the title of the article, you will see a comments section. The most interesting of the comments will be published in Change's print version.

-David Arnold
  Dean of the School for Professional Studies
  Director, Center for Community and Regional Studies
  St. Catharine College, Kentucky

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