Quantitative Analysis and Skill Building in Public Administration Graduate Education

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The need for greater skill building in Master of Public Administration (MPA) curricula is increasingly finding expression in the literature as a result of the new emphasis on outcome assessment in academic programs.(1) Outcome assessment encourages a focus on the "ideal" or "expected" values and skills of the MPA graduate (the "product") as a means of designing curricula and assessing their success. To oversimplify somewhat, the focus of outcome assessment is on the knowledge and skills that students are generally expected to have when they complete their studies. As a terminal degree for public and nonprofit sector professionals, the MPA bas generally been defined in terms of the professional values and practical knowledge and skills needed to survive and prosper in public and nonprofit agencies and to respond to the interests and needs of democratic societies.

In some measure, it is generally expected that MPA programs are providing students with the requisite skills in quantitative analysis to be successful and effective public administrators. The focus here is on the nature and sophistication of the specific skills in quantitative analysis that typically are taught in MPA curricula.

While many of the values, knowledge, and skills that should be acquired in an MPA program are articulated in the National Association for Schools of Public Affairs and Public Administration's curricular standards, there is still considerable debate within the membership of NASPAA and within other professional and academic organizations. For example, the debate can be found in recent writings criticizing the lack of attention among MPA programs to basic communication skills (e.g., Manns and Waugh, 1990; Hambrick, 1990; Waugh and Manns, 1991), microcomputer and other information technology skills (e.g., Candle, 1990; Brudney, Hy, and Waugh, 1993), advanced research techniques (e.g., LaPlante, 1989; Waugh, Hy, and Brudney, 1991), and management science techniques (e.g., Garson, 1989).

Much the same kind of debate revolves around the question of what kinds of quantitative analysis skills should be taught in MPA curricula. To some extent, the central issues have been: what kinds of skills are in fact required in public and nonprofit sector employment and what kinds of skills are generally expected of MPA graduates? The skill needs of public and nonprofit sector administrators are still uncertain and certainly vary tremendously according to work responsibilities. There are discussions of appropriate skills for some occupational categories such as policy analysts (see, e.g., LaPlante, 1989; Schachter. 1985) and program evaluators (see. e.g., Hy and Brooks, 1984). But, the breadth of the field of public administration mitigates against the development of a single set of skill needs.

In terms of the skills acquired in MPA programs, earlier studies of MPA curricula (e.g., Hy, Nelson, and Waugh, 1981; Hy, Waugh, and Nelson, 1987) have inventoried the statistical and methodological techniques taught and questioned the level of sophistication in quantitative analysis expected of students. Little guidance has been offered by any of the studies concerning the requisite skills in mathematics, research methods, and other analysis-related coursework. Indeed, the Hy, Waugh, and Nelson (1987) analyses have commented on the difficulty of measuring the capacities of entering students for more advanced coursework on the basis of prior coursework, the uncertain value of strong mathematically-based statistical skills (relative to the value of more superficial "cookbook" type skills), and the unclear distinction between research and decision-making skills.

This analysis addresses two principal questions: (1) what kinds of basic and advanced quantitative analysis skills for research and public decision-making are students acquiring in MPA programs and (2) what do those skills suggest for the definition of "outcomes" in public administration education? …

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