Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Posted by Shirlee Geiger

Did you hear about the letter PCC got this past August from our accrediting agency, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities? The letter was shared at many in-service activities at the outset of fall term. In part it reads:

[T]he evaluators recommend that the College hasten its progress in demonstrating, through regular and systematic assessments, that students who complete their programs have achieved the intended learning outcomes…

This letter came with a carefully worded, polite and collegial, “or else.” It has gotten a lot of attention since it was received. (If you want to see the full copy, email me at sgeiger@pcc.edu, or talk to your SAC chair or division dean.)

Some people have seen something like this coming for a while --though not this strong or this fast --because they’ve been tuned in to trends in the politics and economics of higher education. For me, I had just been happily teaching my classes, joyfully oblivious to these trends and pressures…. That is, until I joined the learning Assessment Council in 2008.

Now I watch for news of the tsunami of change headed our way. If you listened in on any of the debates around reforming access to health insurance, you already are familiar with the components of the controversy over higher education.

· Just like health care, costs associated with higher education have been sky-rocketing.

· Also like health care, the negative consequences to individuals shut out of access to higher education are ever more drastic over the course of a life-time.

· Like Health Care, the current higher ed “system” is composed of a mix of publicly funded and private, for-profit institutions. Lots and lots of money changes hands….

· Some schools seem to get very good educational outcomes, at lower costs, than others. This makes it look ever more likely there are some “best practices” that could (if adopted widely) make the whole system more effective and efficient. But it is difficult to get access to statistics that allow a meaningful comparison of schools with one another, just like it is hard to get records that help us pinpoint the best and the worst of doctors, hospitals, or treatment types.

· Having access to medical insurance, or being shut out of it, creates obvious and glaring scenarios of social injustice. These tragic comparisons have contributed to the widespread belief that the current situation is just morally wrong – horribly and undeniably unfair. Yet it is very hard to find our way through to consensus on how to make things better. And this is true in education, too.

The Obama administration has made it clear that access to quality education, including college, for all citizens is a top priority. But the administration has also shown -- as with the controversy over health insurance -- it is willing to shake up the status quo. The demand for evidence-based medicine is paired with a demand for evidence-based education.

And that means you.

Here at PCC, we have been lucky. We have administrators, in the form of Chris Chairsell and Preston Pulliams, who have been willing to trust faculty to take the lead in crafting a response to this new demand for accountability and evidence-based educational practice. The Faculty Learning Assessment Council was formed by Sylvia Gray (Instructor in History at Sylvania) in Fall 2008. Last year was the initial implementation of our recommended plan. This year is the full implementation. You can see what we came up with, as well as some excellent assessment projects created by your colleagues, at http://pcc.edu/assessment

The Council has set in place a process where members of each SAC collaboratively devise an assessment practice that will be useful and meaningful to them in figuring out how to improve their program. The interest is in assessing the program, and ultimately the institution, not individual classes, learners, or educators. The focus on program or discipline level assessment requires (among other things) a new level of communication and collaboration among teachers, both full- and part-time. Many people who have made a start at creating and implementing program level assessment of core outcomes gave feedback to the Council that the collaboration was a wonderful and unexpected bonus of their work….

With this blog, we hope to continue the process of communicating across campus locations, discipline boundaries, and the isolating walls of our individual classrooms. Each week, a guest blogger will take center stage, bringing expertise or perplexities, perhaps highlighting best-practices, maybe pointing out what we stand to gain, or lose, as we work together to meet these new demands for evidence… You are welcome to comment on the blogs. If you would like a turn as Guest Blogger, just let me know, and we’ll schedule a time for you.

And who am I? I am the new and in-coming chair of the Learning Assessment Council. I am starting my 28th year as a part time instructor in philosophy. I first came to PCC as a student. I was 17 years old, already a cynical and bitter high school drop-out. I thought education was simply the polite way to refer to the main propaganda machine for the “system.” I wanted no part of it… except to study a little bit of literature, get exposed to a dab of history, and (quick!) learn another language so I could go out and travel the world – getting far, far away from anything resembling a classroom. So I did a year at PCC. Then I did some traveling – I lived on different continents, saw what life can look like outside the Pacific Northwest. I left pieces of my youthful cynicism in cheap hotels, and in exposure to the hardships and sorrows that are normal outside the US. I gradually lost that desire to get as far away from Portland as possible. But I have never lost the desire I acquired in my travels to be part of the solution, instead of part of the problem….

I returned to Portland, and have stayed rooted here. I continued at PSU, eventually went to graduate school... I have done lots of different kinds of work, in addition to teaching here at PCC. But I have continued to be drawn back to the very classrooms I was so hot to leave behind when I was young.

Teaching here for me has always been one small way I have tried to “pay it forward.” Some of those teachers I had at PCC, in my 17th year on this earth, changed the trajectory of my life. I was a sullen and angry young woman. But they saw a potential thinker, with some good ideas -- but much to learn. And they began the process of transforming me.

I am deeply, deeply grateful to them.

I am interested in providing good evidence of the good work we do here to interested parties in the world at large. And I am interested in looking out for ways we can do our good work even better.

So…What is your reaction to this letter from our accreditors? What is your experience with assessment of learning? What are your hopes and fears as we lean in to the changing winds?

Please join the conversation and let your colleagues know what you are thinking. Share your concerns, ideas, expertise, and peaks-around-the-corner at what education will be like in the coming decades….

After all, we are all in this together….There may well be a sullen 17-year-old waiting right now in your classroom. Waiting for you to see the possibilities in her she can’t yet see herself. Waiting for you to see her into her best possible self…

Let us share how we do this magic, so that we can touch ever more lives.

Certainly, we know this: There is no shortage of need…


  1. Hey, Shirlee,

    Welcome to the job!

    I think there has been a fundamental problem with assessment at PCC from the beginning. Until we deal with it ... it will continue to bedevil our efforts. Of course, in all of these years, there have been occasional exceptions to this rule.

    What am I talking about? I want someone to ask our SAC (a group of our SAC members) ... what is your resistance to this whole initiative? And to listen ... for a good long time before they respond. (I'm not talking about listening to knee jerk responses or rants, but thoughtful critiques of this initiative.) Typically, after hearing the beginning of a response, someone in charge of assessment will then quickly respond with a counter to the resistance. Subdue the urge to respond. I'd argue that most people won't get to the heart of their resistance easily or quickly. They don't trust people really want to hear why they are unsettled ... and you have to win over people's distrust.

    My frustration about assessment so far is in part what follows ...

    Not all skills, subjects and content can be assessed in the same way ... and not all forms of assessments have the same weight and validity in my mind. Everything can theoretically be assessed ... but the question is ... does the institution have the patience, resources and commitment to assessing students in the ways that will be meaningful?

    For example, I don't think you can assess a student's progress with expository writing in ten weeks or a year. The real progress I have seen ... comes over a five year or so period. After five years, students can usually look back at their education and to some extent say what helped them ... and what didn't. And usually, I can see the evidence in their writing that we are trying to measure only after a short period of time. (Although, sometimes I think that what really mattered is that they kept practicing writing essays. Sometimes, I think what makes a difference ... and here I am talking just about writing ... is providing students with the confidence and the continual guidance to keep writing, little else.)

    But, let's just assume it is more than simple confidence and guidance ... let's assume what we do in our classes does matter in a linear or even non-linear way ... then the question is when will the evidence appear? For my SAC, I think we need to create assessment structures that allow students to show evidence years down the road. Anything other than that ... will measure skills that students had fairly much in place when they walked into our classes and not honestly measure what we had them practice.

    There are other serious problems ... but my day is short and my list of things to get done is long ...

    Please take this posting with the sincerity in which is meant.

    All the best,

    bryan hull
    sylvania english

  2. Thanks for the great work. I borrowed a great book on assessment after attending your event at PCC. Can you post that list of books to this blog.

  3. Joe, O for heaven's sake, I only just now read your post! Thanks for bring up the question of source material. We (the Learning Assessment Council)have listed scads and scads of assessment resources on our PCC webpage: