I think that I’m just sick enough to do this post. What do I mean by that? Well, you know how when you’re really sick you can sometimes achieve a state of exhaustion that leads to a certain tranquility of mind? Actually, I think strep throat in particular leads to this for me. The last time I had strep throat was in college, and unlike this time, I suffered for about a week before finally getting myself some antibiotics. But what I remember most vividly about that bout was that I had this huge midterm in my literary criticism class, and I remember having this bizarre clarity of focus while at the same time I felt like I was going to die. That’s how I feel right now – not all out of it like you feel with a head cold, and not totally down for the count, like with the flu.
Anyway. I feel pretty awful, but I also feel like I have some fuzzy thoughts that I want to get out, so here we are. (By the way, for those of you who are interested, the reason that I’m thinking about this stuff is because of this post and then this one, though I’m not really directly responding to either.)
What interests me first is the way that “assessment” and “accountability” are often framed in opposition to student learning in actual classrooms, no matter whether one comes down in favor of assessment and accountability measures or against. There is a sense, on both sides of this debate, that “measuring” is some separate activity from what currently happens in classrooms.
The argument from the pro-assessment, pro-accountability camp goes something like this: These kids today aren’t learning what we need them to learn. Students can’t write, students can’t think.* The solution is clearly to put a mechanism in place that makes “education” accountable for the fact that students aren’t “succeeding” the way that we think they should be succeeding. By “education,” we mean teachers, curriculum, etc. Perhaps there is a test out there in the world that can do this?
The argument from the anti-assessment, anti-accountability camp goes something like this: These kids today aren’t learning what we need them to learn. Students can’t write, students can’t think. The problem is that they’ve been taught to the test so much in K-12 that they come to college unable or unwilling to do the work. All this assessment makes it impossible for students to learn! The solution is clearly to do away with interventions that limit teachers’ ability to enforce rigor, to design creative assignments, to give students individual attention. By “interventions,” we mean the government, testing agencies, buttinsky administrators with no disciplinary expertise. Perhaps if we complain and resist enough somebody will listen to us?
I don’t personally like either of these models for thinking about or talking about assessment and accountability. I’ve been trying to think about why they both bother me, and I think it comes down to a combination of things. 1) Both take as a given that students aren’t performing to their capacity and that students have no ownership over their performance; 2) Both take as a given that the work that we do in classrooms as teachers in the present moment is an exercise in futility (see #1); 3) Both fail to articulate the potential role of disciplinary practices and expertise in determining and evaluating what happens in the classroom; 4) Both see assessment as an end rather than as a beginning. Add to these the fact that we automatically assume that “taxpayers” want more testing, as if “taxpayers” are a monolithic group who’ve been hypnotized by a conservative agenda for education, and, well, it becomes difficult to have any sort of meaningful conversation about assessment and accountability, whether you’re pro-assessment or anti-assessment.
But so, let’s take as a given that my objections to the way this conversation is framed are legitimate. If they are legitimate, then why do they persist? When I try to get to a root cause or a foundational reason, what I come up with is a basic lack of trust. Pro-assessment folks do not trust teachers. Anti-assessment folks do not trust administrators and legislators. (There are “taxpayers” and “members of the general public” on both sides.) On both sides there is a foundational paranoia about the other side’s motives, a paranoia that is exacerbated by the fact that there are very few settings in which people actually get together in good faith to talk about a) what we want assessment to achieve, b) how to come up with assessment instruments flexible enough to allow for pedagogical innovation, and c) what we aim to do with information gathered by assessment. These questions do not have self-evident answers, and until we talk about those questions and the potential answers for them, we remain in a turf war. We fight. We assume the other side has bad intentions or refuses to come to the table.
Oh, and neither side trusts students, and neither is really interested in what they have to say about their experiences. Paranoia about each other extends to students, with the anti-assessment folks assuming that students want to take advantage of an educational model that spoon-feeds them factoids, and with the pro-assessment folks assuming that students want to take advantage of an educational model that has no standards. Students really are a bunch of lazy, manipulative fucks, whatever side one’s on.**
What I’m suggesting here is that we can’t all come to the table if we don’t actually have a table that has enough seats for members of both sides, and even for students, too. And we don’t have that table if we don’t start first with honest questions, rather than with agendas.
Seriously, the only agenda any of us should have is that we educate students to the best of our abilities. I don’t think I’m being all that controversial in making that statement.
With all of that being said, I actually don’t have a problem with a movement toward assessment and accountability, as long as the mechanisms for that actually benefit students. And some of the mechanisms that have been put in place in the time between when I was in college and today actually do benefit students.
Let’s take this as one example. When I was an undergraduate, the norm for a syllabus in my discipline was that it amounted to little more than a list of readings and, if I was lucky, a list of tests/paper deadlines. As a first generation college student, the syllabus gave me little to no information about what I was supposed to get out of a course. There was little transparency about what I was supposed to do or why I was supposed to do it. You have a paper due? Yeah, you write a paper. No assignment sheet. No sense of what the point of the assignment was. If you were an enterprising student, you might go talk to the professor about his expectations. I didn’t figure that out until about 3 semesters in.
What I’d say is that I don’t think that’s terribly effective pedagogy. What I’d say is that the movement toward including learning outcomes on syllabi, if we take those learning outcomes seriously, encourages greater transparency and does, in effect, facilitate student learning. Similarly, giving students an actual assignment for a paper with expectations and projected outcomes can facilitate student learning.
For me, thoughtful assessment would allow me to learn whether my assumptions in the above paragraph are true. Is student learning being facilitated by including outcomes on syllabi and expectations on assignment sheets? If the answer is yes, we can then move to more detailed questions: are some outcomes being achieved with better performance than others? What assignments or activities are linked to those outcomes on which we’re doing the best? Can we learn from how that works, and then perhaps use some of the same techniques for outcomes with lesser performance? Or, perhaps, do we need to revise the outcomes that aren’t working – is the problem not the work that students are submitting but rather the way that we have articulated the outcome? By analyzing how students are performing across sections, can we then initiate a conversation among different faculty teaching the same course about pedadogical best practices? Can we think about our work as teachers as part of a collaborative community, and can we share our successes and challenges in order to improve learning across the curriculum?
As a teacher, I like the idea that we could ask those questions and get those answers and then maybe do something cool as a result. But I’ll tell you one thing: if we design learning outcomes to be as opaque as possible so as to jump through an assessment and accountability hoop rather than to learn something about our programs, then all we’re doing is engaging in a pointless exercise. If we implement tests that don’t facilitate conversation and collaboration, then all we’re doing is engaging in a pointless exercise. If we see “assessment” and “accountability” as the end of the line, rather than as the start of a process that helps us to examine teaching and learning with care, then what we get are assessment and accountability practices that don’t actually produce anything. We’re doing the higher ed equivalent of jerking off.
But to be fair, hand-wringing about how assessment and accountability are the end of the world and proposing a plan that amounts to “I believe the children are the future” and “teachers know how to do their jobs and have nothing to learn about how to do them better” is the higher ed equivalent of jerking off, too.
If we’re going to appeal to the desires of the general public surrounding education, it might make sense to find some middle ground between these two positions. For me, a middle ground begins taking the idea of assessment seriously, and about seeing it not as a big stick with which to beat faculty or institutions or students but rather as an opportunity to shape the future of education. In order for that to happen, I think faculty need not only to participate in the conversation but to drive it. Also, we (as citizens) need to think about these issues in terms of budget priorities: if we really believe that assessment and accountability are crucial, then we need to find the money to do those things properly. If we don’t want to pay for these things, then perhaps we don’t really care about them so much after all. And if we don’t, isn’t it better just to admit that rather than to implement half-assed approximations that come with little to no cost?
Somehow, I don’t think that the “general public” wants to support a giant circle-jerk at its public universities. And I certainly don’t want to be drafted to participate in one.***
*This reminds me a lot of the recurring phrase in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse that “Women can’t paint, women can’t write.” This phrase comes from the insufferable Charles Tansley, and it echoes in Lily Briscoe’s mind. Is this statement “true”? To what extent does the phrase create the reality, enforcing a prohibition, performatively?
** For those who don’t get tone, or who don’t read carefully, let me just state for the record that this is NOT my attitude to students.
*** I totally find the literal idea of a publicly funded circle-jerk at universities across the country hysterical, however. Now that’s the way we should be spending our tax dollars!
Edited to add: I just happened upon this story over at IHE this morning, which seems to fit well into this conversation.