Adam Smith wrote two books. In one, the Theory of Moral Sentiments, he discusses the need and ability of individuals in society to be sympathetic to others. In the other, The Wealth of Nations, he discusses how self-interest benefits society. Some have seen a contradiction in these two outlooks. James Otteson titles his work on Adam Smith the “Marketplace of Life“. The idea of a marketplace when discussing economic theory such as in the Wealth of Nations is obvious. But we also create our society by “free-market” interactions amongst ourselves. Rather than being formed by a set of rules imposed from the top, society is created and grows as the individual interactions among its members.
David Brooks, in Testing the Teachers (19 Apr 2012), argues for “value-added assessments” for colleges so that we can measure their effectiveness. He mentions with praise those colleges which have put together assessment strategies, and refrains from recommending a coercive approach.
Diane Senechal takes Brooks to task for his suggestion. She delineates the numbers of ways in which students may be doing the “right” thing and yet not be improving vis-a-vis some objective standard of measurement. And David Brooks mentions the fear of an accountability model on the nature of No Child Left Behind.
We have followed, among the modes of conservatism, the weak-government, free-market strand, and a strand which believes in enforcing a particular set of morals on society (think Christian conservatives). We can see elements of these two strands in the reactions to objective assessments of education. The free-market strand would insist on a rather extensive level of localization of education, either K-12, run by local school boards, or colleges, each run individually. The moral strand would insist upon setting an agenda for the improvement of society, having schools organize around this agenda, then offering some sort of assessment to make sure the schools are fulfilling their mission. (The moral strand of liberalism is in close agreement on the approach, if not the agenda.)
David Brooks, though, suggests a “free-market” approach to assessment, as well. Just as individuals pursue their own interests in Adam Smith’s society, and interact with sympathy with their neighbors, so colleges will develop individual approaches to assessment, and share amongst themselves. He invites foundations, academic conferences, and magazines to weigh in with suggestions for assessment. Colleges can not only design or choose their own assessment strategy, but when marketing themselves to prospective students, can emphasize a uniqueness based not only on the college experience, but on the ways in which that college experience has been assessed, how valid those assessments are, and how relevant they are to the interests of prospective students.