How the Program Approach Has Failed Big Education

(Editor’s Note: This article is a follow-up to the author’s “Outcomes-Based-Education,” which ran here at PJM on June 16, 2012.)

Reform: A thing that mostly satisfies reformers opposed to reformation.


— Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary.

It seems that scarcely a semester goes by without the announcement, or is it annunciation, of some new and glorious educational reform which will infallibly redeem a deteriorating academic situation and restore conviction, hope, and effectiveness to those of us who have long ago stopped believing in an educational “system” that must aim up to reach bottom. Somehow we never pause to ask why the new reform is necessary in the first place, considering that the previous reform promised exactly the same putative benefits and results, as did the one before and the one before that. Moreover, each of these doctrinal miracles, each new renovation we are compelled to approve and implement, will be magically brought to pass with even fewer resources than the one that it is meant to supplant. Meanwhile, administrators refurbish their offices with thicker insulation, sallying forth into the real world from time to time to harangue the sullen and the skeptical from the shakiest of pedagogical platforms.

Naturally the “authorities” justify these new reforms and upheavals and the endless and costly paper trails that lead to them by claiming that they are making the educational system more efficient. How? By centralizing control and especially by trimming away “excess” — like student bursaries and electives, reasonable schedules, maintenance budgets, equipment stores, and library acquisitions, to name just a few — the very “excess,” I would suggest, without which education cannot survive. What is fat for the bureaucrat and the administrator is bone for the teacher and the student. Our “educational leaders,” as they are euphemistically called, are obviously unfamiliar with John Holt’s warning in his Instead of Education — a book which has been around for over thirty years — where he persuasively argues that the result of trying to make education “more effective and efficient will only make it worse, and to help it to do even more harm. It cannot be reformed.”

With the above in mind, it seems to me that we can no longer afford to continue in our usual dilatory and submissive way. It is time we took sides and proclaimed our loyalties in the eternal conflict between the penman and the postman, thought and administration, knowledge and cleverness, that is, between a capacity in the field and a Borsalino predator. In this regard, we should be deeply suspicious of the latest academic hoax or mutation, namely, the so-called Program Approach — a subset of what is known as Outcomes based pedagogy and a system fueled, let it be said, by copious quantities of theoretical methane. For the educational millennium we have entered is nothing more or less than an allegorical Bartertown whose denizens trade in the illicit goods of defunct or makeshift ideas, false sentiments, myopic judgments, and selective impressions. We are, in fact, embroiled in a situation characterized by the proceedings of the usual suspects or delegations — a dither of teachers and an irrelevance of administrators — whose deliberations guarantee nothing but a new curricular apocalypse and the further erosion of educational principles and results. As Victor Davis Hanson laments in an article for PJ Media titled “California: The Road Warrior Is Here,” the students he taught at CSU Fresno “were far better prepared in 1984 than those in 2004 are; the more money, administrators, ‘learning centers,’ and counselors, the worse became the class work.”


The Program Approach operates as a kind of conceptual umbrella. The Program is defined in an introductory document that circulated in my college as “an integrated set of learning activities leading to the achievement of educational objectives based on set standards,” a fustian definition which tells us precisely nothing we did not know prior to its belated formulation. The ministries and departments that are imposing the matching sets of “learning activities” associated with the Program like to think in terms of common “objectives” which students must “target” and which must be “housed in multi-disciplinary courses.” They subsequently proceed to “identify” these objectives as if they were transcendental substances or — on a homelier level of metaphorical exchange — bar-coded domestic products arranged on a shelf in some sort of pedagogical supermarket.

These new subjects are then given distinguishing labels such as “Major Currents,” “Communication Objectives,” “Transfer Abilities,” “Development of Learning Skills,” “Integrating Activities,” and “Knowledge of the History of the Disciplines.” Several of these objectives may apparently be achieved in one course or, variously, several courses may be required to achieve one objective. “The courses,” we are told, “become a means to achieve the essential objectives of the program” — but when, one may be forgiven for asking, was it ever otherwise? When did teachers of the better sort not teach with an array of complementary purposes in mind, goals like general literacy and research proficiency, which in the very nature of things transcend the specific determinants of the given discipline?

But Programs homeward plods its weary way. Objectives are duly tied to courses and disciplines and these latter are tidily bundled into “time units” and “fields of study” (or programs) garnished with legitimating credits and obligatory “contact hours.” The language and the mindset being put in place testify to the desire to turn the “structures” of student learning into an assortment of logic gates, computer hardware components that consist of any number of input wires (courses) and one output wire (the pre-specified objective). When more than one objective is specified, the technician can always introduce a “branching gate,” which has several output wires, to direct cerebral traffic. Since logic gates are able to perform only three basic operations, represented as “not,” “or” and “and,” the future envisioned here does not especially look like an epistemologically rich environment where human freedom, complexity, and differentiation may be expected to flourish.

So dehumanized, students and young people are on the way to becoming something quite unprecedented in the history of our civilization, hybrid creatures whose mental operations are patterned on the functioning of electronic circuitry and whose ratiocinative “elements” are meant to be easily replaceable and upgraded when necessary. The various internal circuits which form part of the larger instrumentation of the motherboard must obviously be carefully integrated if they are to work properly. Thus the culminating objective which the Programs transaction seems to envision is the aforementioned “Integrating Activities.”


The difficulty, of course, is that on the level of both reflection and feeling, which are categorically distinct from neurological activity in itself, human beings are not “integrated circuits” and simply do not “integrate” like electronic devices or programs obeying a set of algorithmic instructions. The fact is that “Integration” is only a synonym for systematic aimlessness. One of my students wrote: “I have an Integration Seminar — don’t ask me what that’s all about, I have no clue — and all we do and have done is talk about what we’ve done.” A Programs update that made the rounds at my college nervously agreed, allowing that “teachers are not sure what they are supposed to be assessing” (let alone teaching) but went on confidently to assume that all will be well once we have managed to determine “what different disciplines have in common, which could be assessed at the end of a student’s program.” The endemic arbitrariness and, indeed, futility of this proposition seems to have escaped the planners altogether.

The attitude that prevails in the committee rooms and administrative offices is one of assumed intellectual supremacy not justified by the facts. The Program druids are content with the propagation of high-sounding abstractions and accordingly spend most of their time formulating a new kind of brogue which obscures the stubborn deficits that the “target population” (a.k.a. students) brings with it into the “learning context” and which, as a pseudo-scientific creole without purchase on reality, must necessarily resist workable translation into practice.

And so what used to be known as grading becomes “a summative appraisal activity.” Knowledge is defined as “an integrated set of skills, abilities and attitudes” — but an ability is further defined as an integration of “content, skills and attitudes,” which would seem to lead to tautological saturation. Competency weighs in pleonastically as “capability and ability which allows success in the completion of a task and the exercise of a function.” The term “performance” variously signifies “an action or a group of actions” on which, mirabile dictu, “assessors will base their evaluation” or, in the words of Dianne Bateman, one of our local gurus in the yoga of reform, “any act you might want someone to perform [and] that can be directly observed and assessed.”

The list goes on. Classroom events like reading, discussion or viewing films are now referred to as “modes of stimulus…used to elicit outcomes” which are then to be duly assessed — activities which in darkest antiquity were known as studying and writing exams. Such learning, we are reminded, consists in the testable acquisition of abilities, skills, and attitudes — although it should be obvious that attitudes cannot be tested for, only hoped or prayed for. “Tests,” for their part, have undergone a lexical metamorphosis and are presently called “instruments.” I do not know how many of these technocrats really believe the persiflage they so readily and abundantly exchange among themselves and impose upon others. Probably some of them do, but I suspect a good many are engaged in the collusive promulgation of what Clayton Koelb in The Incredulous Reader calls “lethetic fictions,” that is, “a manner of speaking in which neither the speaker nor the listener [writer nor reader] believes what is said…and neither supposes that the untruth spoken is merely a surface behind which some sort of truth is hidden.” Language has indeed fallen sick.


Thus in still another Program Approach manual valiantly attempting to clarify the issue for us, we find that Liberal Arts courses:

Have been designed to complement one another in terms of the content and abilities developed over the four semesters of the Program. The Integrating Course culminates [sic] the student’s exploration of the Liberal Arts content in history, philosophy, religion, mathematics and science, the English course in literature and in critical frameworks for examination of subject matter, and the Humanities course in social and ethical considerations…All demand an advanced understanding of the Western cultural tradition, communication, research, and independent learning developed throughout the varied disciplines and courses in the Program.


We are then told that emphasis will be placed “on the process of creation itself, rather than on the quality of the work that is produced.” One may be forgiven for suspecting that the Program virtuosos have retained the services of God Himself as a freelance consultant, except that God was no doubt as preoccupied with quality as with creation. Finally these fortunate young people will be enabled to develop “their capacity for integration, as well as their aptitude for transferring learning and making connections between various types of learning.” The Program mavens should perhaps take a look at the work of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, who pioneered the notion of décalage — namely, that principles do not always migrate from domain to domain.

Following all this stellar and prodigious learning, students will have to pass three “assessment modules” entailing a research paper for the Integration Seminar, Group Seminar Presentations, and something called an Anonymous Assessment Sheet. What all this really means escapes me almost perfectly, as do the diverse modular elements which frame and compose the student’s competency profile, of which I count twenty-nine separate “components” spread across four columns and arranged on two levels of hierarchical attainment. The covert message which this language conveys, whatever else it might be saying, is the message of moral default and professional delinquency.

In any case, all the rodent busywork associated with the Programs reform, the manic restructuring of educational designs, and the insensate application of an inappropriate terminology must inevitably come to nothing anyway if only because our students enter upon their postsecondary careers with little in the way of scholarly equipment and intellectual substance. The prior deficits from which they suffer will render the entire operation null and void. As an illustration of what I am getting at, consider the following excerpts from a collection of term papers I did my best to grade. Their authors vary in age from seventeen to twenty one.

One of my students is apparently confused about the name and function of a church, which she describes as “a cave-like place with statues.” Another deposes that “the Virgin Mary had alot to do with religion. As well she invented a new Clamato drink.” Going one better, a more reverent essay writer affirms that “God is the major component in the universe” — the Fatherboard, I guess. Another defines a text as “a script of many printed pages and numbers at the top.” Still another is convinced that the seventeenth century poet, Robert Herrick, “seems to have some sort of learning disability” as evidenced by the poet’s inordinate fondness for words like “methinks” and “mine eyes.” A sixth deplores the fact that the Enclosure movement in sixteenth century England “left people to die of starvation by hunger.” In a passage discussing the rabbinical use of parables and stories as teaching devices, another student informs me that “the kabbinical lifestyle flewed from the Hebron kabbis in the whole land.” An eighth thinks that the Dead Sea Scrolls refer to an extinct marine animal, on the order of fossil trilobites, I would presume.


Not to be outdone, one of his classmates claims that a starfish is “a mutant interstellar space craft with fins and stuff.” A tenth laments that we tend “to take Nature for grand tit” — which is probably true enough, everything considered. Arriving at the moment in Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado when the killer reveals the trowel with which he will immure his victim, my student solemnly declares that “Montresor was in construction,” a hypothesis he goes on to support by alluding to the villain’s Italian pedigree and its connection to the cement industry. The author of a term paper on William Butler Yeats mentions in passing the poet’s troubled relations with “the Garlic League”; that this was not a typo for “Gaelic” is clear from the student’s parenthetical bewilderment as to why that particular plant should figure so crucially in Irish politics. From her reading of The Name of the Rose, another student concludes that “laughter was forbidden in 1327.” I have just discovered from a paper dealing in part with Aristotle’s Poetics that “Aristotle was a very well known and faluting philosopher of the fortieth century.”

Although the roll of such solecisms is distressingly long — and I hasten to assure my readers that these are not derived from that fake species of literature which Jan Brunvand in his amusing book Curses! Broiled Again! calls “xeroxlore” — it is important to realize that we are not dealing with a population of juveniles or aspiring imbeciles but with a representative selection of young adults crowding their twenties who hail principally from middle class families, the supposed backbone of the nation. John Taylor Gatto, who was named New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991, had their number when he wrote in Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling that “school children who face the twenty-first century cannot concentrate on anything for very long; they have a poor sense of time past and time to come…they hate solitude [and] are dependent, passive, violent, timid in the face of the unexpected, addicted to distraction.” I’m not sure about the “violent” — though the OWS movement has me re-thinking — but my point is that these students must be materially helped, not indulged or experimented upon with novel methodologies. I am, however, convinced, assuming the privation of both bedrock knowledge and a vigorous desire to learn, which latter can be stimulated only by committed parents and passionate and authoritative teachers, that the majority of our students will remain in outer darkness waiting, no doubt, to be rescued by a passing starfish.

We have been transported, it seems, into the realm of the numinous. How all these celestial events and plenary accomplishments are expected to occur in the near total absence of previous grammatical instruction, the crippling dearth of prior reading whether voluntary or otherwise, the paucity of accumulated knowledge, a truly devastating lack of intellectual exposure to both the sciences and the arts, and the caustic and disabling skepticism of the students themselves (as attested by the hundreds of student education journals I have read and innumerable class discussions and private interviews with the journal writers themselves) is beyond at least my powers of deduction. These deficiencies are the major reason that none of the reforms enacted within living memory have ever worked and why each and every one of them has had to be unceremoniously scrapped or mutilated beyond recognition. The outlook for the Program is no different. And this is because our experts have failed to consider, to everybody’s eventual cost, the iron law of generation enunciated by poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in his Journals: “From much, much more; from little, not much; and from nothing, nothing.”


But the juggernaut appears to be unstoppable. “It is only the program as a whole,” says the Comprehensive Assessment manual we had to work with — in other words, this congeries of complementary and compulsory courses zeroing in on a welter of desired objectives or “learning competencies,” which are in themselves inherently esoteric and nonconcrete and which cannot be tested for with any greater degree of precision and accuracy than in previous dispensations — “that can prepare students to meet the needs of the future.” I humbly submit that a wholesale reform cast in a pidgin drawn from Business Management and Computer Technology with a tributary influx from the Behavioral Sciences can have nothing to do with the real nature of teaching as a discipline and a vocation.

The trouble, says E.D. Hirsch in Cultural Literacy, is that far too many teachers “are not expected to have mastered particular factual and traditional information, or any special academic discipline; they are trained only to impart skills.” “The pathways into knowledge and taste,” mourns Mark Bauerlein in his Hirschean update, The Dumbest Generation, have been blocked by “the teachers, professors, writers, journalists, intellectuals, editors, librarians, and curators who will not insist upon the value of knowledge and tradition…They have let down the society which entrusts them to sustain intelligence and wisdom and beauty and they have failed students who can’t climb out of adolescence on their own.”

Clearly, a planned upheaval summoning an army of nebulous objectives with incantatory insistence and Ouija-like manipulations will meet the needs of neither the future nor the students but only those of a swollen bureaucracy that has invested heavily in the mirage of perpetual reform.


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