Education, Beyond Fight or Flight

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When it comes to education, we have gotten ourselves firmly stuck. The lack of a clear and compelling vision coupled with an insatiable thirst for assessment and accountability have left us trapped with little room to move or breathe. Our schools and students are being squeezed by tightening expectations and external scrutiny, thrusting us into a collective tailspin of vulnerability and threat. Naturally, our instincts of fear and self-preservation are kicking in. But unlike in our evolutionary past, the options of flight or fight are no longer sufficient to save us. Instead, trapped within the complexities of our own inventions, we must transform our manufactured constraints into something inherently freer and more expansive.

The how is clear. We need visions and commitments that are more powerful and resonant with the broader world, and we need to put assessment and accountability back in their appropriate place- not as drivers or engines, but instead as tools to help us clarify and strengthen our ability to fulfill our (individual and collective) promise.

Based on my experiences in higher education, K-12 and the community sector, our core commitments are rarely sufficiently clear, compelling, or grounded in core capacities to be measurable, actionable or ultimately meaningful. They are either too vague, too specific, or too vacuous to drive change within the complex and dysfunctional landscapes which they claim to address. It is not surprising that related assessment plans, no matter how sophisticated or comprehensive, cannot measure or inform movement toward some vision or commitment that has not been sufficiently operationalized, internalized, or infused. And yet, assessment has become high-stakes in virtually every sense and sector. Assessment based on externally imposed standards, expectations, and metrics drive investments, public trust and reputation.

Without a clear and compelling vision, these externally imposed standards and expectations become everything. We adapt and optimize our systems and resources to produce outputs that mirror those expectations. And if permitted, we go so far as selecting applicants (or inputs) that are closest to the desired output, minimizing variance and optimizing resources while celebrating our success and superiority.

Yes, we are in need of a compelling collective vision, but we cannot wait. Individual schools can clarify the best versions of themselves, their strengths and gifts brought by their students, histories, communities, staff- virtually any qualities or virtues that are inherently authentic, meaningful and important. They can check these against the ambient world- the needs, the challenges, trends and opportunities. And as they toggle between the processes of looking within and outward, they can infer the essence of what they uniquely have to offer, what they can promise, what they should expect. If they can achieve clarity to the point of knowing and feeling and articulating what they are about, they will be able to see themselves fully actualized, and identify the gaps and needs along the way. Once they can commit, boldly and absolutely, they can create spaces and opportunities for their communities to move toward that vision while finding the sense of security and support necessary to actualize their potential.

To be clear, even in this ideally clarified and resonant state of identify, vision and mission, schools will need to meet external expectations, including metrics that are neither sufficiently clear nor meaningful. Leaders will have to ascertain what is necessary and non-negotiable and what can be relaxed or stretched or translated through more meaningful and textured metrics and stories.  But as the clarified and resonant vision and mission become internalized and permeate through the culture of our schools, those leaders and students and teachers can begin to stretch the spaces and expectations around them, feeling courageous bold and secure in the knowledge that they are successful in ways that are inherently meaningful and important.

It is only in this state of relaxation and movement that we can escape our threat responses, emerging from the traps and cages we have created, and finally enjoying the possibilities that will be catalyzed through our expansion.

 

 

Confronting our Fear of Assessment

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Our discomfort with assessment is understandable.   Although the term itself is neutral with regard to judgment, it’s become inexorably linked to issues of quality, compliance, and punitive measures. Perhaps at the core of these associations is the sense that assessment is an external process imposed by those who are on the outside, wielding their power and resources to determine our respective fate.

Interestingly, the notion of internal assessment, or self-assessment, lacks the same fear-provoking effect.  That is, as long as it’s perceived to be led “by” and “for” ourselves, with no high-stakes outcomes attached.  Internal assessments that are truly formative in nature, intended to support our own growth and development, are actually seen as beneficial and are often welcomed or even sought out in the form of consultants, workshops, or self-help books.  These approaches encourage us to set and clarify goals, identify our strengths and weaknesses, and develop strategies and frameworks to keep us on track.

For many, these two categories seem like night and day, and what we would pay for the latter – in the form of personal or professional development, we would gladly hand over to avoid the former.

I find this distinction fascinating, since most assessments, even the imposed variety, necessitate or even support the internal formative kind.  Accreditation, reviews, state tests, or virtually any systems-wide evaluation programs are designed to ensure and check internal quality control systems by imposing standards, targets, or set expectations.  These assessments that are tied to compliance or incentivization do not- or should not- in any way take the place of internal assessments. 

To me, the total reliance on external measures to evaluate one’s success or impact is unfathomable.  It makes me think of the proverbial woman who determines her worth and happiness by whether she is appreciated by her spouse.  By waiting for validation through external assessment, we are in essence giving away our power and condemning ourselves to eternal vulnerability.

And yet I continue to see organizations that point solely to compliance measures as evidence of their own efficacy and impact.  Ironically, when those measures are less than flattering, the organizations cry unfair and point to the limitations of the evaluation methods themselves. And when the results are laudatory they hold them up as evidence of their success.

It is clear that high-stakes assessments are not going away, especially in areas that scream for improvement and reform. But basing our systems solely on the external standards and expectations imposed on us will not lead us to the improvement that we seek, nor will focusing on the assessments themselves.   

There is simply no way around the work of clarifying our core beliefs, expectations, and commitments.  Once we can articulate and feel these in a way that is meaningful and real, we will naturally want to know if we are actualizing what we intend.  We will be able to see evidence of our impact in numerous ways, as well as opportunities to improve and evolve.

Once we achieve this level of clarity and cohesiveness, assessment will feel like the formative tool that it is meant to be, and fear can finally disappear from the equation.