you're reading...
Learning at its Best

My Love/Hate Relationship with Educational Numbers

A few months back, I wrote about how my college was going through the NCATE accreditation process. The outcome of that long event was a report about how we are doing. One area in which we were “dinged” was in our assessments of our graduate programs. As director of one of our biggest graduate programs, this report finding means that I am now under the gun to create quantitative assessments to determine the effect our Master’s program has on its students (are we teaching them anything, are their dispositions and behaviors changing toward sought-after ends as a result of our program, etc?).

While such info can certainly be useful in some ways, I cringe at how there is an assumption underlying the whole process that the professor of the classes and faculty of the department can no longer be the judges of whether or not we are doing what we should be doing. I know, I know; some people assume that without accountability people will slack, but I personally don’t slack when someone isn’t watching over me! I have very high expectations for myself and so I bristle whenever people assume that I don’t.

So, now I am having to sit down with other folks who teach our graduate classes and come up with some easily quantifiable assessments that will give us “hard data” on whether we are doing what we are supposed to be doing. A major complication of this for me is the nature of a number of our classes. These classes, such as multicultural education and foundations of education, are not your conventional, transmission-model classes. We are not overly concerned with whether or not our students walk out with a “bunch ‘o facts;” instead, we want to know if our students have engaged with the material in a serious and critical manner …have they thought deeply about what they have read and discussed in class? Have they shown fledgling steps toward being informed advocates of sound educational practice? Have they examined issues from multiple perspectives and sought an understanding of “cui bono” (who benefits and who doesn’t by certain practices)?   I and my fellow professors already have qualitative assessments (assignments) that help us to determine these things, but now we have to grotesquely contort ourselves into the quantitative mold and satisfy the “powers that be.” This stinks. And it makes me worry that, as my K-12 public school counterparts have experienced over the past 10 years with NCLB, if I don’t fight this forced contortion now, will it just keep getting worse and worse? Do I take a stand with my school director, college dean, and our accrediting agency and assert that some courses just don’t lend themselves well to quantitative measurements? Must I proclaim from the rooftops that “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts!”?

But then I think about the fact that I have not taken a substantive stand against the major source of quantitation that already exists in my classes–the process of grading my students. Does my capitulation to the practice of grading mean that I should be OK with all forms of quantitation? Am I being inconsistent if I am relatively OK with one (grading), yet reject the other (accreditation assessments)? Or are there distinctions between the two forms?

I have actually been muddling through this question of grades in the college classroom recently. I have written in the past about concerns I have had with grading at the K-12 level, about how it tends to take students’ focus away from actual learning, makes them less willing to take intellectual risks, and how it focuses them on extrinsic motivators rather than intrinsic, etc. But lately I have also been thankful for the fact that I have to grade my college-level students because I believe that it does a service for our school districts in their hiring processes (e.g. it gives them an idea of who are the students that tend to put in more effort, have more nuanced understandings, evidence more creativity, etc., which I think helps make HR decisions, and which ultimately leads school districts to get better teachers). I know in my heart of hearts that I should not feel this way because grades aren’t perfect — they don’t capture whether or not a student is having challenges outside of my class that are impacting what they can put into my class, nor do they capture other intangible things, but yet at the same time, I can’t overlook the fact that there seem to be students in every semester’s classes who, by my reckoning, far exceed other students in their diligence, creativity, and understanding of the practice of teaching (the nuances, the complexities, etc.). Shouldn’t such students get preference in being employed in this competitive economy?

But if I believe the above, then shouldn’t I also be OK with having my own work quantitatively measured (thru accreditation-mandated assessments)? What is good for the goose ought to be good for the gander, no? Should my students bristle because I seem to be assuming that without the grade hanging over their heads they won’t put in their best effort? Should they take a stand against me? And if they did, how would I react? Arrgghh, my brain hurts! How can I feel both ways at once? Do other teachers feel these inherent contradictions of their beliefs and practices? What can we do about it?

About Kristan Morrison

Dr. Kristan Accles Morrison taught for seven years at conventional middle schools in North Carolina, which drove her to research alternative forms of education based on critical pedagogy and social justice. She earned her Ph.D. in the Cultural Foundations of Education from the University of North Carolina Greensboro and is now a professor in a teacher education program at Radford University, where she makes a point of introducing her students to educational alternatives. In this blog, Kristan reflects on her attempts to bridge the worlds of conventional and “alternative” forms of education. She considers how to bring more democratic and freedom-based practices into the realm of standard education, and how to discuss educational alternatives with a conventional audience. She explores the paradox of many teacher educators: preparing her students for teaching in the schools as they are, while also preparing them to help create the schools that could be.


4 thoughts on “My Love/Hate Relationship with Educational Numbers

  1. Seems like there’s a big difference between assessing whether students understand something and whether they can put it into practice. Seems like a lot of qualitative assessments (assignments) are designed to determine whether students grasped what the teacher wants them to know and/or believe, but seldom really assess whether the student is capable of integrating what they’ve learned into their practice and ultimately having an impact on their students. Rather than feeling you have to contort yourself and just answer to the Man, maybe you should focus on developing different types of assessments that provide the answers (and the data) to that question, thereby meeting everyone’s needs.

    Posted by Gideon | January 12, 2012, 12:13 am
  2. Kristan,

    What’s good for a goose may not be good for a gander – they are, after all, different.

    I perceive accreditation by any organization as involving mistrust. “Outsiders” identify the “safe” practitioners/entities based on their credentials or accreditations by agency X or Y. I think two things are at work here. First, it is quick and easy – time is money, and who has time to investigate? Second, it reduces personal responsibility for choosing a given practitioner/entity because he/she/it has already been “graded”.

    When judging the professional practices of accreditation, resentments may arise because the criteria used do not accurately reflect real-life complexities of professional practices. I have done some JCAHO work with clients and neither my clients nor I have ever seen the myriad documentation required for accreditation either save a life or their absence take one.

    It is a Catch-22 situation and, In the end, it comes down to money.

    Best wishes,

    Posted by Brent Snavely | January 12, 2012, 11:00 am
  3. Descriptive feedback – such as that in a letter of recommendation or a conference about performance – can be used systematically to improve or maintain and communicate about learning, individuals, and organizations. In that some quantitative assessments are useful for specific things, we might use them to help us deliver informed, descriptive/qualitative feedback. However, grades and test scores are at best shorthand that isn’t well-iunderstood or articulated outside of their communities of practice. Grades are subjective; test scores are used to justify inferences that their tests aren’t meant to support. In fact, sometimes, for the sake of expediency and in compliance with authority, we nod sagely at such letters and numbers and act in response to them as we think someone else wants us to – we ignore other pieces of feedback and other courses of action.

    I get why it’s good to use a reading diagnostic tool to help a learner of any age access text through some kind of technology or strategy; I don’t get why it’s good to use that tool to label the learner (or her teacher or school or division) a failure and to then set in motion a series of events that tear-apart the community around her.

    In the case of university – or of any school – accreditation, I can see why it’s good to collect data about the performance of graduates and grad students, but I’m sure that can’t be done with any kind of fidelity, accuracy, or validity without multiple measurements and a way to analyze, synthesize, and summaries their results that is driven by a predetermine purpose (more than achievement) and determined by consensus between stakeholders.

    How do you create a framework that accounts for learning? For “being” an educator? It’s a big task, but every humane attempt probably puts more humane teachers into our schools and classrooms.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 16, 2012, 12:59 pm
    • No problem, Jenn. This problem will recur until the blocking semester starts, as you are a non-degree student. I am your contact, so you are doing the right thing by letting me know!

      Dr. Kristan A. Morrison
      Associate Professor
      Graduate Program Coordinator, M.S. in Education
      School of Teacher Education and Leadership
      Radford University
      P.O. Box 6959
      Radford, VA 24142
      (540) 831-7120
      (540) 831- 5059 FAX (this is a shared FAX, please do not send confidential info via it; also please include a cover page directing to me)
      Frederick Douglass noted, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

      Posted by Kristan Morrison | January 16, 2012, 7:35 pm

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,101 other followers

Comments are subject to moderation.

%d bloggers like this: