Looking Forward

Montgomery Improvement Association Booklet, ca. 1960

Looking forward. That’s what I am doing, like the Montgomery Improvement Association. I think, in effect, an “Improvement Association”  is what our Assessment Committee has defined in our creation of the Marylhurst Assessment Program.

A few weeks back, I read a white paper written by Peter Ewell (aka “The Assessment God”) titled Assessment, Accountability, and Improvement: Revisiting the Tension, which was commissioned by the The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. In this article, Ewell articulates two paradigms that exist around assessment in higher education: 1) assessment to be accountable to others, such as funders or accreditors, and 2) assessment to be focused more internally, on improvement. The distinction he describes in this way:

Accountability requires the entity be held accountable to demonstrate, with evidence, conformity with an established standard of process or outcome. The associated incentive for that entitity is to look as good as possible, regardless of the underlying performance. Improvement, in turn, entails an opposite set of incentives. Deficiencies in performance must be faithfully detected and reported so they can be acted upon.  (p. 7)

In addition to articulating the tensions that exist around, within, and across these two paradigms, Ewell commented upon the aspects and importance of culture in thinking about and navigating these tensions. As I’ve gradually been moving into my new role here (Dean for Learning & Program Assessment), I’ve been giving a lot of thought to our “assessment culture” — what it is, is becoming, and might need to be to make student learning and program assessment as meaningful as possible.

As my position description was being circulated among faculty, questions such as “Does this person have authority over programs?” and “Will programs be accountable to this person?” arose. The answer was always “No,” and after reading this article, I am grateful for that. The dichotomy that Ewell presents is also present in institutional roles — in my role, should I be seeking departments to be accountable to me, or seeking ways to build capacity in order to support improvement?

The latter, thank you.

But that returns me to the question of our assessment culture, which implies a shared set of understandings, meanings, and maybe even goals. I would like to believe that my colleagues and I share a passion for teaching and learning (and not just for our subject areas or our students as individuals), and that we value assessment as the key mechanism that helps us understand what we do as teachers, its effects, and how we might continue to improve them — individually and programmatically.  I would like to believe that we share an understanding of what I keep calling the “balanced stool” of teaching, learning, and assessment (it has three legs and if you cut one short, the stool wobbles).  I would also like to believe that pleasing accreditors or funders isn’t our purpose (or at least our primary purpose) in pursuing assessment of student learning and, ultimately, programs. I’m not so sure this is true. I am not sure we all share much of any particular approach when it comes to assessment. Diverse perspectives are healthy in an organization, but so are shared values and purposes.

What I do know is that one idea has kept echoing in my head since reading this article:  Ewell’s notion of the importance of the collective.  Ewell writes this (my own inserts in brackets):

…we must emphasize a commitment to a collective responsibility for teaching and learning and their results. Instead of seeing assessment as an aspect of higher education’s responsibility to its funders [or accreditors], both faculty and academic leaders need to see it as part of our accountability to ourselves [and our students] (p. 15).

Indeed, it is becoming more clear to me that I want to — very intentionally — take the improvement paradigm to heart and to practice in my role.  I want to support continuing to create a culture that takes collective responsibility to make sure that 3-legged stool stands up and doesn’t wobble; that it provides good support to us and to our students; that it’s focused on improvement.

Necessary to a true collective, though, is also an open system — a way for feedback (critical and positive) to inform and change practice as needed. So I seek that from my colleagues; I seek open communication about assessment challenges, departments’ needs, and how the Assessment Program (and me at its helm) is doing.

Yep – like the Montgomery Improvement Association, I am looking forward.

(Thanks to the US National Archives for making the Montgomery Improvement Association picture publically available on Flickr.)

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