Reaccreditation has become a multi-million dollar industry in this country. I don't actually know if that statement is technically true; a multi-thousand dollar industry just doesn't have the same impact. But, even though reaccreditation has been around for a very long time (Kenyon's first accreditation was 1913), today it is big business, in much the same way that standardized testing has become big business. There are some big budgets at stake here. Just walking around the exhibits (there are no books) at the Higher Learning Commission meetings in Chicago last summer, Sarah Murnen, Paula Turner, and I were assailed by data collection software companies, hawkers of standardized tests, merchants of first year experience programs, and give- aways ranging from post-it note organizers, pens, rulers, and door hangers, to refrigerator magnets and beer openers, to green rubber balls (don't ask me why).
And along with the big budgets come the buzzwords, which is what many of us find so annoying in the whole process. So here is my first attempt at demystifying the process. I am going to go over some of the most egregious of the buzzwords and try to sort them out. I believe that we can probably get through accreditation avoiding the trap of buzzwords, so my motto is "resist the cult." In the simplest terms, through the self-study process, we (Kenyon College) want to learn some important things about ourselves and use them to help shape our future in specific and material ways.
Much of what is coming out in educational jargon in 2008 seems to flow from the 2006 Spellings Report, a report by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education appointed by then Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings. That report made several recommendations that cover such topics as the value of higher education, student access to college, cost and affordability, financial aid, and institutional accountability.
Accountability--This is the new big buzzword and you hear it everywhere in higher education. We are supposed to be accountable to all of our "constituencies"--I assume that means primarily students, prospective students, their parents, our donors, our alums, and the community in which we work. By accountability I assume they mean we are actually doing what we say we are doing, delivering the goods (whatever those are), that we are worth what we cost. Or perhaps, the general public has a very different notion of what we should be accountable for. Perhaps our ideas about what constitutes an appropriate education are not the same as the general publics'? A. Lee Fritschler, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and former college president and U.S. assistant secretary for postsecondary education wrote in an article that appeared in Inside Higher Education: “I keep hearing, ‘The public is really angry at higher education and wants us to be more accountable’.... Could you be a little more specific?” He continues, “What’s the problem that we’re trying to cure by these proposals we’ve seen” for more federal oversight and tougher standards for student learning outcomes?" No one has a terribly clear idea about how one is accountable or what, specifically, we should be accountable for, but there is a spirit abroad that thinks we need to be.
Assessment--This is another term that keeps us awake at night (or puts us to sleep). Increasingly we are being asked to provide, and I quote, "direct value-added measurable student learning outcomes." That's a mouthful, so let's unpack it.
1. Value-added: Do our students know more when they come out of college than when they went in? Did we add something?
2. Outcomes: Are we looking at outcomes, as opposed to inputs? As teachers, I think our first instinct is to look at what we are teaching, our syllabi, our tests, our assignments. These are inputs. We are comfortable with inputs because we can control them. Increasingly accreditation bodies are looking for measurements of outcomes. Are the students actually learning what we think we are teaching them?
3. Measurable and direct: Our measurements should be direct measurements. That is, we should not only be asking the students if they think they learned something. We should be demonstrating from the work that they do that they have in fact learned it. So a survey which asks students about what they learned would be an indirect assessment. A summary of scores from a test would be a direct assessment.
Rubric: "a scoring tool that lists the criteria for a piece of work or 'what counts.'" Before you can measure student learning, you have to figure out what it is that you are measuring. What "counts" as a discrete piece of learning. That thing, the criteria, which you are measuring is expressed in a rubric.
I plan to write more about assessment in future blogs, so let me continue with more buzz words. I have a lulu planned for next week, so watch this space.
Continuous Quality Improvement; Not every buzz word comes out of education. Here's one that comes from the business community but which is increasingly being applied in education. It is "an analytical decision making tool which allows you to see when a process is
working predictably and when it is not." Huh? And, whatever it is, you do it all the time, hence continuous.
Strategic Planning: Another term we inherited from business. This I think is a term for a planning exercise that takes months and months and lots of people to complete, gets put on a shelf, and everyone forgets in six months because the conditions under which it was written have changed drastically.
Buy-in: This I suspect is a marketing term that has leaked into higher education. It means, how do we get the faculty (0r students or administration or alumni(ae)) to embrace enthusiastically whatever snake oil we are selling. We need to "buy into" that process or it will fail. If you hear me using the word "buy in" please by all means hit me over the nose with a rolled up newspaper.
Stakeholders: These are the people who are involved in the institution in any way. Our constituency. In the case of a college the stakeholders are students, faculty, administrators, staff, alums, parents, townies, virtually anyone who has something to gain or lose by the institution's existence. All of these "stakeholders" need to be "involved" in "reaccreditation." OK got it.
The Reaccreditation biz can also be a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms, so I'll introduce you to only 2 today. These are the two different paths for accreditation that the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association (that's HLC of the NCA for those in the know) sets out:
PEAQ: Program to Evaluate and Advance Quality. This is the decannual reaccreditation that we do. It happens only once every ten years, we produce a self-study, and a team visits us and stamps us with approval. Whew. Job done. I can go back to teaching. As one article in Inside Higher Education suggests, the stakes of reaccreditation are so high (if a school loses its accredited status it loses federal funding), that rarely are schools denied reaccreditation. See "Accreditors as Federal Gatekeepers."
AQIP: Academic Quality Improvement Program (really I'm not making this stuff up). At first blush, is there really any difference in the meaning between these two phrases? Basically in this program you do what we do for our decannual reaccreditations, but you do it all the time, 24/7 as the kids say.
Sometimes these buzzwords can lead to some stunningly and mind-bogglingly empty prose that leaves your head spinning. Here's a paragraph I read while I was working out on the elliptical in the KAC (sorry, that's Kenyon Athletic Center) the other day:
"A common phrase for conceptualizing change is 'Think global, act local.' The phrase points us to creating large-scale change by acting to foster change in specific local contexts. Think global, act local very much describes the work of [X] at [Y]. X's mission is to collaborate with institutions to gather and use evidence to strengthen liberal arts education. The center works to strengthen liberal arts education nationally by working with individual liberal arts institutions to use evidence to enact changes on their campuses. Our goal is to assist campuses in improving student learning in a manner that is consistent with the unique ways in which different institutions define and enact the liberal arts."
Whatever that means. Again if I start to sound like that at any point over the next two years--please by all means get out your rolled up newspaper. Let's keep focused on what we want to know about ourselves and dispense with the jargon. Let's keep this process creative and fun. So watch this space and in the meantime--Resist the Cult. And please feel free to send in your own favorite examples of buzzwords.