Spelling Report: Lessons Learned?

Gary Brown pointed me to this report: “Assessing the Impact of
the Spellings Commission: The Message, the Messenger, and the Dynamics of Change in Higher Education
“, sponsored by the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

At first, the thought of a 192-page report on the impact of another report seemed like a bad joke.  But as I read the Executive Summary, I found some interesting perspective on being a change agent in higher education.

I saw two issues highlighted which are particularly important for a university Office of Assessment.   The study says, ” The recommendation that generated the most controversy concerns assessment: “creating a robust culture of measurement, accountability, and transparency.”” (p. 9).  The study attributes much of the controversy to the notion that accountability and transparency are opposed to autonomy.

The second issue I noticed was the controversy about urgency vs. complacency: ” Furthermore, there was a general resistance to what many higher education leaders believed was an overly harsh critique of the current state of higher education. They expressed opinions in public media and association Web sites that the gap between the present and desired state of higher education is not as wide as the Commission implied in its Report.” (p.8)

People working in higher education assessment encounter both of these issues frequently in reactions to calls for change.  Whether it is the insistence that only faculty should evaluate student performance, or a claim that adequate scores on student evaluations mean that teaching is satisfactory, the meaning is the same: “Don’t stretch me.”

The reaction to the Spelling report indicates to me that blunt approaches will generate predictable (and successful) resistance.  Without visible and unequivocal support from the highest levels, assessment initiatives will need to be circumspect to avoid self-destruction.

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