Last week we published a series of comments (one, two, three) on the Presidents’ Alliance for Excellence in Student Learning and Accountability. Today we’re pleased to present a reply from David C. Paris, executive director of the presidential alliance’s parent organization, the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability:
I was very pleased to see the responses to the announcement of the Presidents’ Alliance as generally welcoming (“commendable,” “laudatory initiative,” “applaud”) the shared commitment of these 71 founding institutions to do more—and do it publicly and cooperatively—with regard to gathering, reporting, and using evidence of student learning.
The set of comments is a fairly representative sample of positions on the issues of evidence, assessment, and accountability. We all agree that higher education needs to do more to develop evidence of student learning, to use it to measure and improve our work, and to be far more transparent and accountable in reporting the results. The comments suggest different approaches—and these differences are more complementary than contradictory—to where we should focus our efforts and how change will occur. I’d suggest that none of us has the answer, and while each of these approaches faces obstacles, each can contribute to progress in this work.
For William Chace, Cliff Adelman, and Michael Poliakoff, the focus should be on some overarching measures or concepts that will clearly tell us, our students, and the public how well we are doing. Obtaining agreement on a “scale and index,” or the appropriate “active verbs” describing competence, or dashboards and other common reporting mechanisms will drive change by establishing a common framework for evaluation.
Josipa Roksa, on the other hand, suggests that real change will only happen from the ground up. Faculty training, incentives, and classroom practices need to be strengthened; change will occur when “faculty are capable of and will teach specific skills that are identified as important and/or in need of improvement by assessment endeavors.” In both cases, the comments suggest a focus and view of change somewhat different from what they see in the Presidents’ Alliance.
As the Presidents’ Alliance moves forward, it will be important to keep these perspectives and points in mind. At the same time, these perspectives too may miss some important elements that are emphasized in the Presidents’ Alliance.
First, too narrow a focus on either some overarching measures or conceptual formulations may end up with these being disconnected from improvement. For example, establishing institutional indicators of educational progress that could be valuable in increasing transparency may not suggest what needs changing to improve results. As Adelman’s implied critique of the CLA indicates, we may end up with an indicator without connections to practice. At the same time, Adelman’s move from “active verbs” to “sample assessments” and then presumably to improvement are not small and seamless steps. The Presidents’ Alliance’s focus on and encouragement of institutional efforts is important to making these connections and steps in a direct way supporting improvement.
Second, it is hard to disagree with the notion that ultimately evidence-based improvement will occur only if faculty members are appropriately trained and encouraged to improve their classroom work with undergraduates. Certainly there has to be some connection between and among various levels of assessment—classroom, program, department, and institution—in order to have evidence that serves both to aid improvement and to provide transparency and accountability. But these connections are unlikely to occur spontaneously. In enlisting presidents, our initiative is trying to encourage academic leaders to set an agenda that would include faculty as part of a broader institutional endeavor.
As Laura Perna’s note suggests, the Presidents’ Alliance is setting forth a common framework of “critical dimensions” that institutions can use to evaluate and extend their own efforts, efforts that would include better reporting for transparency and accountability and greater involvement of faculty. Equally important, she also notes that the public nature of these commitments and “a commitment to sharing information” hold the promise of forming a more coherent professional community around issues of evidence, assessment, and accountability.
As Perna’s comment also points out, there is wide variation in where institutions are in their efforts, and we have a long way to go. But what is critical here is the public commitment of these institutions to work on their campuses and together to improve the gathering and reporting of evidence of student learning and, in turn, using evidence to improve outcomes. The Presidents’ Alliance provides a shared framework for institutional self-evaluation and action that will encourage them in their efforts to fulfill these commitments.
We hope many other institutions will join the Presidents’ Alliance and make similar commitments. The involvement of institutions of all types will make it possible to build a more coherent and cohesive professional community in which evidence-based improvement of student learning is tangible, visible, and ongoing.