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It means nothing without change

I recently picked up Ben Wildavsky’s book, The Career Arts. (It’s a well-written, important work. Book review coming!) Like many other works I’ve read, it contains some version of “The History of Higher Education” – at least a telling to the point that relates to Wildavsky’s narrative. I’ve read similar book chapters in the past (one of the better ones comes from Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education… perhaps somewhat ironically, given Wildavsky’s focus on career skills), and they always leave me with a sense of where higher education comes from and how that relates to the challenges we face now.

In both these and other works, when reading about the period between the late 1800’s and mid 1900’s during which much of the modern infrastructure of higher education was formed, you can learn quite a bit. Reading about the underlying needs and goals that led to the creation of modern colleges and universities is even more telling. I’ll spare you the citations, but here’s the way I interpret it. And for those of you new to the blog, please know that any lead-in such as this is an open invitation to challenge either my interpretation of the facts or the inferences I draw from them…

The founding of the modern university was about the currency of knowledge. Primarily, colleges and universities existed, first and foremost, to generate knowledge through research. There is an implicit role of knowledge maintenance here as well. Not only did universities have exquisite libraries and collections of actual collections of artifacts, but they also had the people who knew the most.

At a time before the internet or even near universal literacy, this functionality of simply warehousing and generating knowledge made colleges and universities the optimal place for aspiring young people to learn. However, any look at the original faculty model showed that instruction was largely a secondary functionality. Research and faculty were first, and students learned under the wings of great mentors, often conducting their own formative research solely as off-shoots of what their faculty mentors had done.

While few would out-and-out say that educating students was a secondary function, the idea of teaching assistants – graduate students who would teach introductory classes so senior faculty could be “freed up” to conduct research – is perhaps the greatest embodiment of this ideal. No matter what the mission statements said, these institutions did not exist for the students. They existed for the faculty.

Then came the student success movement. For all the conversations about who started it, what it meant, and what it’s done, at its core the student success movement was about suggesting that the primary constituency of colleges and universities was students. How audacious.

Josh Wyner from the Aspen Institute – cited in Wildavsky’s book - refers to this as the transition from College 1.0 to College 2.0. A shift to the understanding that access to and completion of higher education was a central, if not vital function of higher education. I’ve also viewed Tinto’s work on retention as a part of this movement, as it shed light on the nature of education as a social, not just academic phenomenon.

This change has certainly brough challenges. Any senior higher education administrator can tell you tales of dealing with faculty groups and their obstinate resistance to change. While there are many attributions one can make to interpret this resistance, it’s always made complete sense to me. Most initiatives in the student success movement are about this change, which shifts the focus away from the things faculty were trained to do (peer collaboration, research, knowledge generation) and asks them to instead be experts in supporting students.

Interestingly, I see very similar parallels in the assessment community. Most of my peers were trained in some version of psychometrics: the science of creating measurements and data for unobservable constructs. Traditionally, both our understanding and practice were focused on measurement. The metaphorical company tagline was, “we provide good data, the rest is up to you.”

However, after decades of widespread increases in mandated K12 testing, increased measurement of student learning outcomes, and generally a push to more data analytics, simply giving data wasn’t enough. We in the assessment world needed to better understand how people interpreted our results, whether they related to student outcomes like retention, and if the use of our assessments led to negative consequences for traditionally underserved populations. These were things for which some psychometricians were wholly untrained.

There are two commonalities among these fundamental shifts in education and assessment. The first is simply that fact that they are fundamental changes. They aren’t just some other training or natural improvement - they are changes to some of the foundational culture, practices, and beliefs that people within the field hold, resulting either from their own training or a process of acculturation to the previous way of doing things.

This is a significant challenge. When companies and other organizations seek to fundamentally change culture and practice, it takes intensive effort and resources over a significant amount of time. Now imagine if that change was not only vague, but largely undiscussed by the parties involved? Without articulating and agreeing to this change, we have no chance to move into a world in which student success is our primary focus.

It’s this note of change that has me pondering all this at the start of the new year. Much like our fabled resolutions, this change has zero chance of taking hold unless we follow the goal with the necessary work.

But the second commonality between education and assessment is even more daunting. That change involves shifting from a model where the primary constituency thinks about themselves to one where they think about others. And in both educational and assessment contexts, that external focus is not simply altruistic giving. Both fields are thinking about how they can help those with whom they work to grow and change in meaningful ways to achieve their goals. Just as it’s true for a college advisor, trying to help a bewildered freshman choose a major and get over a breakup with their significant other, it’s true of me trying to help a school figure out how to improve Sense of Belonging among the first-generation students matriculating this Fall.

But here’s the thing. Education and assessment are both inherently about change. We educate people so they can have a better life than they would have had otherwise. We gather data and give results so that faculty, staff, and administrators can make better decisions than they would have otherwise. Whether we realize it or not, we are all in the business of change. Without it, the world won’t be better - it will just be the same one we have today.

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