I had a disconcerting experience the other day. Cognitive dissonance, I guess. For once in my life I arrived early for an appointment. In the local coffee shop I reached into my brief case, stuffed with unread material, and pulled out an article by two Stanford researchers in higher education. It's called "Responding Responsibly to the Frenzy to Assess Learning in Higher Education" (Shavelson, Richard J. and Leta Huang. Change, January-February 2003).
They present a very useful survey of the assessment movement in higher education and powerful arguments that, if used in "high stakes" situations today (for accreditation, resource allocation, accountability), it will have pernicious effects—above all, intellectual narrowing. They are not against assessment, mind you; they just want it to serve, rather than distort, liberal education goals. Their position is very close to that of Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, whose "Principles" for the use of assessment are now available on our website. And, as you know, it's very close to the "ground up," "low stakes / high yield," faculty-led, value-added philosophy that has shaped Teagle's grantmaking in assessment. Moreover, your good work, and that of other colleges and universities using assessment in this way, says that higher education is taking important steps toward increasing student learning.
All this made me feel very confident as I went to my appointment with Jim Hunt, former governor of North Carolina, a middle-of-the-road Democrat, and a real friend of education. He remains such a force in North Carolina's civic life that friends sometimes refer to him as "governor for life." He's also a member of the commission which the Bush administration appointed a while ago, the National Commission on the Future of Higher Education. I wanted to talk to the governor about press reports that the Commission might recommend imposing a single national assessment on all colleges and universities, large and small, public and private. Jim Hunt was reassuring on that point; and a draft report of the commission, posted on the website of the Department of Education, sounds as if the Commission has backed away from any idea that "one size fits all."
Still, the draft report remains focused on one use of assessment: accountability. Were Jim Hunt and all his colleagues on the Commission happy with this focus? Might they prefer to stress the benefits of the ground up, low stakes / high yield approach with which Teagle has been having such success?
In response I got an earful, which I'll summarize as five points:
The US is slipping from an internationally acknowledged first place in higher education to somewhere well down the scale. (The Commission's draft calls attention to OECD data indicating that the US now ranks seventh among major industrial countries in the proportion of adults aged 25-64 with some post secondary credentials.)
There has also been slippage in the quality of undergraduate education. The Commission notes that the National Assessment of Adult Literacy shows that "the percentage of college graduates deemed proficient in prose literacy has actually declined by 40 percent in the past decade," (p. 6). We let it go at that, but I know there is a lot more that Jim Hunt could point to, including some very sobering evidence in Derek Bok's important new book, Our Underachieving Colleges. Bok makes a strong case that American college students are learning far less than they should in many crucial areas.
As baby boomers retire, the generation that will replace them in the work force is likely to have a lower level of skills. Some of this reflects the greater diversity in our population, but the bottom line is that the work force will be less well qualified just at a time when higher levels of skill are needed in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.
Higher education has resisted change and transparency. We all know that higher education is struggling with some very difficult problems; what Commission members see, however, is resistance. The response higher education has made to calls for transparency and accountability sounds, to the finely tuned political ear of the former Governor, "arrogant." He warns that higher education will be in an untenable position if it does not embrace systematic assessment as the way to achieve accountability and transparency.
"Ground up," "campus based," "low stakes / high yield" assessment is all well and good but there's not much time to demonstrate results. Comparatively mild recommendations now will be followed by tougher top-down standards in a few years, if things don't improve.
Those five points add up to a very tough message—and the likelihood of policy recommendations that will be the exact opposite of what I had been reading in the article by the Stanford higher education researchers.
As I left Governor Hunt's office I asked myself, who is right—the skilled researchers in higher education out in California or the skilled politician from North Carolina? Apart from a little cognitive dissonance, it's a no-brainer. The Stanford crew's analysis may be correct, but the context surrounding their thinking is changing dramatically. As Steve Wheatley of the ACLS puts it "The train is a comin' and its name is assessment."
So what do we do? Jump on the freight train and cheer? "Oh how nice it is to have you folks from Washington telling us how, at our college, we should be teaching our students. Thanks so much. You have done such wonderful job with Amtrak, not to mention in certain other areas of national policy, that we're just dying to jump onto your train."
That's not what I think. I think that your colleges, with your leadership, and with the help of CIC, are sitting on a much more powerful technology than any freight train coming out of Washington DC. Let me explain what I mean.
The assessment movement right now seems to me to be where the computer revolution was in the 1970s and 1980s. Can you remember how slow the equipment was, how bulky and expensive? Since it was far from user-friendly, its applications were largely defined by the experts who had developed the hardware and the software or those who commissioned their work. These cumbersome machines, moreover, were free standing, not linked together in networks. It was hard for many of us non-specialists to see the potential of this technology or how rapidly it would transform our lives. Those of us in the humanities, in particular, feared that this technology would endanger literacy, displace the book, distract the mind, and corrode the human soul. If you think you are encountering resistance to assessment on your campus right now, think back to what some of us old Luddites were saying when computers started appearing on university campuses.
The assessment movement, to be sure, is of a very different order, but its future, I believe, will resemble the history of the computer revolution—the instruments will become swifter, cheaper, more versatile, and easier to use. There will be uses we can't even dream of right now. And, before we know it, individual applications will be linked together through the sharing of data and ideas. A culture will grow up in which assessment becomes as routine as checking your email. This habit of assessment will be shaped not by presidents, or deans, or bureaucrats, but by faculty leaders who have the imagination to take hold of this new technology and use it to improve student learning. The one absolutely central fact driving the assessment revolution is this: If we know more about how our students are learning, we can teach better and they can learn better. That is our mantra at the Teagle Foundation and the reason we are committed to ground-up assessment: "If we know more about how our students are learning, we can teach better and they can learn better."
And I don't mean just marginally. We're talking about transformation; the result is not going to be your dissertation director's idea of what college teaching should be—or should not be. The transformation of the economy and of every day life that resulted from new information-age technology shows how powerful such new technologies can be. Among many other things, it changed the pecking order among American corporations. The grand old names IBM, AT&T, Xerox, and Kodak had to adapt to radically changed circumstances. You know the story: some did it rather successfully, some very badly. But who would ever have thought that a business with a name as silly as "Google" would ever amount to anything?
The technologies of assessment that you now have in your hands have equal power to let organizations leap frog ahead. Your college can do that—not because the new marketing consultant has a clever strategy, or because the president has raised a few more millions, but because you can increase the quality of what you are achieving. "If we know more about how our students are learning, we can teach better and they can learn better."
Such technologies don't come along very often. When this train comes in, better get on it.
Help me figure out one other feature of the information technology revolution. Where did the energy, the excitement, the brain power come from? Some of it, eventually, was driven by greed, as we saw in the dot com bubble. But when Tom Friedman in The World is Flat talks about Apache and Netscape and the whole open source movement, he reminds us that it wasn't salaries, job security, award dinners (or tenure!) that, at the outset, drove this crucial phase of the revolution. It was the excitement a bunch of geeks felt when, late at night, they knew they were breaking into new ground, getting it right, moving things to a higher level, showing what they could do, winning the respect of their geeky peers. What drove the open source movement was, in other words, precisely what we hoped for when we went into college teaching, but have too often lost sight of over the years. It's time to reclaim the joy. There is balm in Gilead, brothers and sisters, and there is joy in teaching as well as you possibly can. "If we know more about how our students are learning, we can teach better and our students can learn better."
The clock is ticking. Start where you are, now, and build ground up, in ways you believe will work on your campus, for your students. Don't wait for orders from Washington. Can you imagine what the information technology revolution would be if politicians or bureaucrats or college presidents, or foundation leaders, had tried to shape it from the top down? Can you imagine building a house top down? Sure, the information revolution needed government support in crucial ways, but the creativity, the fun, the success—the sheer joy of it—came ground up, not top down.
So the message of this little sermon is "Go thou and do likewise." Don't wait for a train from Washington to bring you your orders. Use this powerful new technology—still imperfect, still incomplete—wherever you can, and as you do, whistle while you work, or rather, hum this mantra: "If we know more about how our students are learning, we can teach better and they can learn better." Try that and if you hear a freight train pulling in to the station, you'll be ready.