Leveraging external pressure to create institution-driven change
Institutions of higher education often resist external pressure to change and adopt an “us vs. them” mentality. But as we’ve talked about before, outside forces – when combined with the right set of internal circumstances – can help drive and sustain change across a system.
Case in point: the Unified Assessment System at Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education (which is led by Deans for Impact member Jack Gillette).
The Unified Assessment System (UAS) is a researchable database that captures data from key assignments in Lesley’s courses as well as other data points in the school’s student information system (e.g., grades, MTEL scores, etc.) and links that data to standards. Faculty and staff can use the UAS to produce data sets that allow them to test hypotheses about candidates’ performance.
The Unified Assessment System is a perfect example of how external pressure on a program – in this case, a looming accreditation review – can be the impetus for transformation.
The UAS has taken an enormous amount of information about the school, its assessments and its students, put it in one place, and made it accessible to faculty. Faculty can draw data from the system to investigate questions about what’s working (or not) instead of relying on hunches about the institution’s strengths and weaknesses drawn from anecdotal or qualitative evidence. The UAS has helped to create opportunities for faculty to talk in new ways about the program, using data as the lens. Finally, the UAS has helped create and sustain a culture of transparency around candidates’ progress and outcomes.
So how did they do it? Nearly everyone I spoke to at Lesley said the TEAC accreditation process provided the necessary push to create the system. There appear to be three key drivers to the change.
First, TEAC accreditation made sense for Lesley. When Lesley was first pursuing TEAC accreditation, it was operating in 23 different states. Securing national accreditation for the school’s three post-licensure programs was seen as clearly beneficial (and had faculty support). That initial pressure surfaced areas for improvement, including the need for more statistical data to supplement the qualitative data Lesley had been collecting. In other words, there was external pressure, but pressure that was invited by the school faculty.
Second, faculty and staff were involved in the process of developing the UAS. The UAS was not something created by leadership and then handed down from on high. While there certainly was central direction, faculty played a role in designing the system, including: defining competencies; aligning those competencies to standards; designing key assignments; and developing rubrics for candidate assessment. Involving staff in the design process helped all stakeholders understand the connections between their work and the new system.
Third, leadership invested in infrastructure to support and sustain the work. The creation and maintenance of the UAS has been supported by dedicated resources, including a staff position focused on assessment, a statistician, and a position to manage the e-portfolio system. Dean Jack Gillette also ensured faculty had time to do the work of analyzing and discussing program data. Gillette said investing in this infrastructure – and giving faculty the time and space to “melt down” and then pick themselves back up – was critical to the successful creation of the UAS.
Developing the UAS wasn’t a seamless process. Members of the GSOE’s management team are quick to point to the challenges they faced along the way, including many difficult, candid – but ultimately productive –conversations among the school’s faculty. Dean Gillette is also grappling with how to sustain a focus on the work now that the initial goal of securing TEAC accreditation has been achieved. However, it’s clear that the UAS will provide a strong foundation for Lesley’s work moving forward.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of an ongoing series about the educator-preparation programs led by Deans for Impact members. The posts reflect insights from Deans for Impact Learning Tours, multi-day visits by staff and member deans to programs led by our members. These visits are opportunities for transparent discussion about the triumphs and the challenges involved in implementing the guiding principles of Deans for Impact.