A Challenging Question

by Julie Plaut

How can we document meaningful short-term outcomes, when much of what we’re aiming for takes a long time to achieve?

We’ve probably all heard the grudging joke about needing to wait to read our students’ obituaries – hopefully decades from now – to know if we really graduated actively engaged, informed and responsible citizens. Major change in individuals and in communities often takes years, yet it’s critically important to know in the shorter term to what extent we’re achieving our goals, or at least contributing to long-term movement toward them.

A common framework categorizes knowledge and skills as outcomes that can be measured in the short term; actions or behaviors as intermediate outcomes; and values, conditions, and status as long-term outcomes. Thus a campus-community partnership focused on increasing college access might track: middle school students’ understanding of key steps to attend college, and college administrators’ knowledge of effective strategies for increasing access; the same students’ enrollment in a rigorous set of high school classes, and changes in college admissions and financial aid policies or practices; smaller gaps in high school graduation and college enrollment rates by race, income, and parents’ level of education, and a shared commitment among educators to support all students’ educational success.

For institutions and individuals committed to developing engaged citizens, determining exactly what we seek to accomplish and measure may be the fundamental challenge. We can certainly draw on indicators from the national Civic Health Index, the VALUE rubrics, and other resources, including those noted in MNCC’s 2009 Civic Engagement Forums report. Yet there is neither extensive research on the results of different experiences and contexts, nor often a strong link between existing knowledge and practice. In analyzing alumni survey data, for instance, do we take into account political scientist Laura Stoker’s work on life-cycle patterns, so we don’t judge our success by looking at a typically low point in adults’ civic engagement? Some useful reflections appear in How Young People Develop Long-Lasting Habits of Civic Engagement, the result of a conversation to inform the Spencer Foundation’s Civic Learning and Civic Action initiative, which is a source of research grants that will surely inform future practice.

Thoughtful consideration of the desired outcomes for communities, students, and institutions, drawing on multiple disciplines and types of knowledge, can be a civic act in itself—developing participants’ capacity for dialogue, strategic judgment, commitment to engage over time, and sense of accountability for results as well as intentions or actions.

Reprinted from “Outcomes,”our assessment brief which is published twice a year and available at www.mncampuscompact.org/assessment

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