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Friday, July 02, 2010

The ABA's "Student Learning Outcomes" proposal

As Paul Caron recently reported (here), the ABA has proposed a number of changes to its law-school-accreditation standards.  The proposed new Chapter 3, regarding "student learning outcomes", might be of the greatest interest to law teachers.  Dan Filler endorses the "assessment of student learning" aspect of the proposal here, but what about the rest of it?  For example, what will it mean, in practice, to require (see proposed Standard 307) law schools to "ensure that all students have reasonably comparative opportunities to take advantage of the school's educational program, co-curricular programs, and other educational benefits"?  What about the list of required "learning outcomes" (See proposed Standard 302)?  What are the implications, in practice, of requiring that law schools not "continue the enrollment of a student whose inability to do satisfactory work is sufficiently manifest such that it is not probable that the student will successfully complete the course of study at the law school and be admitted to the bar" (proposed Standard 306)?  And so on.  I guess we'll see . . .

Any thoughts?

Posted by Rick Garnett on July 2, 2010 at 11:44 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Dan: You are completely off base. What matters is not the employment opportunities of the students, but whether professors maintain academic freedom. Substantive legal training and good job prospects merely puts food on the table and a roof over your head. But academic freedom, that contributes to society as a whole by allowing professors to teach the writings of Cicero in the original Latin (actual class at Chicago). It is insulting that you would even compare the base needs of a few (tens of thousands) of unemployed attorneys to the great thoughts that rattle around inside the heads of legal and intellectual giants we call "Professor."

(Also, you may need to define the term "peer-review," as I don't think many law professors are familiar with the term.)

Posted by: BL1Y | Jul 2, 2010 2:27:46 PM

What's interesting is that while Section 303 requires "substantial opportunities" for things like clinics and "real-life practice experiences", those are not things that get new graduates employed. Where is (3) publication in peer-reviewed academic journals? Most students now-a-days get a single opportunity, maybe two, and that's when they're 1Ls and don't know anything yet anyway. And yet, the single most important hiring criteria (after class rank) for the kinds of positions students are aspiring to is law review participation. Interpretation 307-1 offhandedly discusses this, but as it stands now I think the vast majority of schools out there would fail: while every student has the "reasonably comparable" opportunity to APPLY, only a small fraction have the opportunity to actually be selected. This is, of course, not taking into consideration schools who simply ban transfer students from participating in these activities (or even worse, in OCI).

I realize none of this is ever going to change, but lets focus on what's actually going to matter to the students: will these changes help them get a job?

Posted by: Dan | Jul 2, 2010 2:08:48 PM

I appreciate Rick’s question.

This proposal is a Trojan horse, loaded with serious threats to the kind of academic freedom in the classroom that are why many of us became faculty. You have to look through the Orwellian language to appreciate how this proposal has the potential to intentionally shift the locus of control over the classroom and curriculum away from faculty (who have overinvested in their own education precisely to avoid this kind of oversight) and into the hands of ‘assessment professionals,’ who tend to have no subject matter knowledge in the domains over which they are asserting pedagogic control.

Let me explain.

First, you must put Standard 302 (Learning Outcomes), Standard 304 (Assessment), and Standard 305 (Institutional Effectiveness) in the larger context of an aggressive ‘assessment and institutional effectiveness’ movement that has swept through universities at the behest of the accreditation agencies recognized the U.S. Department of Education, e.g., Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. As associate dean for academic affairs and liaison to our school’s own assessment initiatives, I’ve had first-hand experience with this movement, which, I must add, are the rag and bone shop of life as an administrator. No doubt, much can be done to improve our teaching; but I don’t expect to find these solutions in the assessment movement.

Second, this proposal has the potential to shift the balance of academic power and institutional governance even further away from traditional tenure and tenure-track doctrinal faculty – which I, at least, see as a reservoir of certain important academic values -- and towards administrative and faculty constituencies (skills etc.) with little or no research commitment. What is worse, the movement can sanctimoniously invoke values like ‘learning outcomes’ to obscure some of the interest group politics that are really at stake. Depending on your views – and the nature of your appointment – these trends may be good or bad, but at least be explicit about what is happening.

Third, the assessment movement has become an interest group with self-referential processes and all the hallmarks of institutional expansion; and it should be understood as such. It’s only now that they turn their sights on legal education. Granted, this kind of interference could have been worse if the Spelling Commission’s findings on higher education had gotten more traction.

Last week, I attended an assessment retreat at my University last week of all the assessment and institutional effectiveness staff and liaison. It felt like the invasion of the body snatchers. By that I mean that there is a missionary zeal to the assessment movement that is very hard to talk against. And with that zeal comes a certain degree of contempt – with its barely disguised jealousies – for tenure and faculty autonomy. Then last week I attended an ABA conference of associate deans that had a session on student learning outcomes. Most of the associate deans seemed to have drunk the Kool Aid so I would not count on getting much protection from these tendencies from your own administration.

Posted by: Jose | Jul 2, 2010 2:04:28 PM

That language struck me as a simple admonition to quit taking money from students who may not graduate and are unlikely to pass the bar. Perhaps I'm under-reading it.

Posted by: Iwillrevealmyselfanon | Jul 2, 2010 1:13:51 PM

Hmmm, I think I read the proposal differently, in terms of learning outcomes and bar-pass rates. It is true, as you say, that law schools are not supposed to "continue the enrollment of" (i.e., take money from) a student who will probably not pass the bar. But, the point of Section 304 seems to be (see the Interpretations) to downplay -- by listing the factor as one among many -- the significance of bar-pass rates when "measur[ing] the degree to which students have attained competency in the student's learning outcomes[.]" Maybe I'm misreading it . . .

Posted by: Rick Garnettt | Jul 2, 2010 1:01:13 PM

Given that the only acceptable "learning outcome" is "be[ing] admitted to the bar" (proposed Standard 306), isn't all of this just code for "teach the bar exam, whether or not the bar exam reflects anything about the knowledge and perspective necessary to be a practicing attorney"?

The proposed standards and structure sound more than a little bit like the DoD's C-ratings (for purported "combat readiness") of the Cold War era. They aren't just subject to being gamed; they are a game with little, or no, connection to reality, because they focus on what is measurable (bar passage rates) rather than on actual effectiveness.

Posted by: C.E. Petit | Jul 2, 2010 12:50:51 PM

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