Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Comptency-Based Education and the NCATE Banana Peel

The problem with business school is that until recently it has not done enough to teach how to succeed in business. In the 1970s and 1980s, when I attended UCLA's business school, there were two models for MBA programs. One, the "quantitative" approach, presented MBA education in accordance with the claim that business and management are scientific problems that can be solved through optimization and modern financial models. By that time, of course, David Halberstam had written "The Best and the Brightest" which in chapters 12 and 13 included a scathing critique of Robert McNamara's management science, which discarded common sense in favor of statistical modeling. Moreover, it is absurd to claim that even a modest percentage of the challenges business executives face involve problem solving. This is a common claim, but most anyone who's labored in the corporate world knows that interpersonal and political skills are far more important to success than problem solving. But business school had been doing next to nothing to develop such skills. The second approach was the case study method, which is somewhat more practical than teaching business students how to do regression analysis, but frequently covers irrelevant material and concepts and also does little to develop interpersonal skills. Two graduates of the Harvard Business School (most closely associated with the case study method), Jeff Skilling and Rebecca Marks, did well with the case study method in school but lacked elementary business competencies (see The Smartest Guys in the Room, by McLean and Elkind)

I thought about this for years in my twenties and thirties (in the 1980s) as I realized that I had learned next to nothing of practical value in business school, with the exception of a course called "Nucleus" that was taught by Professor Eric Flamholtz, who was a pioneer in the competency-based approach. Flamholtz's exercises and insights showed me that teaching business competencies was a yet-unrealized possibility. (Which isn't to say that I didn't have many other excellent academic experiences at UCLA, starting with my chief academic inspiration, Professor Dominique Hanssens in the marketing department there. But there was little that could be applied in most real world business settings as opposed to statistical modeling and hypothesis testing.)

As I thought about how to make business school more practical and of use to students, I realized that the key issues for junior executives involve developing interpersonal skills, politics and power. I suggested to other academics that this be taught, but I wasn't clear how to do so. Finally, I learned about competency-based education through a colleague at Iona, Ted Schwartz.

The idea of competency-based education is that skills are identified and targeted. Students assess themselves with respect to the skills (objective assessment not being valid or even available). Then, they read about how to improve with respect to the skill. The skill can be cognitive or acognitive. For instance, the skill could involve technical knowlege, but more importantly it can involve self-awareness, emotional intelligence, communication, interpersonal skills, conflict resolution and use of power. After learning about how to improve with respect to the skill the student then applies the skill in a real-life setting (skill application) and writes about why they chose to work on the particular skill in the particular setting. David Whetten and Kim Cameron have developed this model in their textbook Developing Management Skills.

NCATE claims that education schools ought to apply "skills assessment" as part of their accreditation program. I have no problem with developing skills. My problem is the "assessment" part. A competency-based approach is effective for teaching purposes as it focuses on teaching and improving with respect to a targeted skill set, and skills that students should be learning in applied programs like business or education can be targeted. This is still done only to a limited degree in business schools, which is unfortunate.

But one thing that I never heard from any of the folks involved in the competency movement is that anyone should ever be penalized or judged for having or not having a competency or be "assessed" in a punitive way. I really don't think anyone ever suggested that and if they did they would have been wrong. The idea is much more subtle than that. Competencies interact with the work environment, so there is no one right competency in the sense that mathematics is right. Of course, there are general competencies that are beneficial across a wide spectrum of occupations. For example, good interpersonal skills, understanding how one's emotions influence one's judgment, etc. are good competencies to have, along with math, reading and writing skills. I'm all for business schools and education schools teaching things like that.

To assess such competencies is another story. It is much more difficult to assess than to describe or teach about a competency like interpersonal skills, communication, how to gain power, etc. Even if they can be tested students can fake their responses once they realize what the test is for. Also, development of tests is extremely hard to do. So there shouldn't be any assessment or testing unless you are willing to invest in a "live" assessment center approach involving structured exercises and hundreds or thousands of dollars per assessee. On the other hand, using these concepts in structuring education programs is something I support as a component of education. Students need to develop interpersonal and self awareness skills as much as writing and math skills. All of the above should be part of a professional education program.

As far as NCATE, they did not describe any methodology about training or teaching the competencies such as social justice. They did not define social justice. They just told education schools that they should assess students using social justice dispositions, which is nonsensical. NCATE slipped on an ideological banana peel. First you have to define what the dispositions mean, then develop measures, etc.

So in short I object to the "assessment" but not to the "dispositions".

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