The last third of this century has seen a fundamental shift in the way educational quality is determined. Previously, the conventional wisdom judged quality in terms of inputs: intentions and efforts, institutions and services, resources and spending. The only other way to gauge educational quality and effectiveness is to focus on outputs: goals and ends, products and results, outcomes and effects.

The conventional wisdom received a radical challenge in the mid-1960s, when the U.S. Office of Education asked sociologist James S. Coleman to conduct a major study of the equality of educational opportunities in America. His report, released in 1966, suggested that inputs might not have a strong effect on equality of student achievement. Reflecting on this study, Coleman has written the following:

The major virtue of the study as conceived and executed lay in the fact that it did not accept [the input] definition, and by refusing to do so, has had its major impact in shifting policy attention from its traditional focus on comparisons of inputs (the traditional measures of school quality used by school administrators: per-pupil expenditures, class size, teacher salaries, age of building and equipment, and so on) to a focus on output.[5]

When judging educational quality, either we focus on what schools spend—or one of its many substitutes—or we focus on what students achieve, what they know and can do. Those who advocate a focus on outcomes in judging educational quality hold one common belief: we must specify what we expect all our children to learn, and we must test them to determine whether they have learned it.

In an outcome approach, success is measured by the extent to which the inputs raise educational achievement. Changes are worth making if there is some assurance that they will produce the expected outcomes. The question then becomes, toward what outcomes should the schools aim?

The focus on outcomes won some converts in the years after Coleman's study. Nonetheless, the resource approach to judging quality continued to dominate American education.