Assessment and Strategic Planning

Over at PrawfsBlawg, my friend Jennifer Bard, dean of Cincinnati Law School, has a post on “Learning Outcomes as the New Strategic Planning.” She points readers to Professors Shaw and VanZandt’s book, Student Learning Outcomes and Law School Assessment. The book is, to be sure, an excellent resource, although parts of it may be too advanced for schools that are just getting started with assessment.  Still, it’s a great book, one that sits on the corner of my desk and is consulted often.  (Dean Bard also gave a nice shoutout to my blog as a resource.)

Citing an article by Hanover Research, Dean Bard draws a key distinction between strategic planning activities of yesteryear and what’s required under the new ABA standards.

Traditionally, law school strategic plans focused on outcomes other than whether students were learning what schools had determined their students should be learning. These often included things like faculty scholarly production, diversity, student career placement, fundraising, and admissions inputs. Former ABA Standard 203 required a strategic planning process (albeit not a strategic plan per se) to improve all of the goals of a school:

In addition to the self study described in Standard 202, a law school shall demonstrate that it regularly identifies specific goals for improving the law school’s program, identifies means to achieve the established goals, assesses its success in realizing the established goals and periodically re-examines and appropriately revises its established goals.

The old standard used the term “assessment” in a broad sense, not just as to student learning. In contrast, new Standard 315 focuses on assessment of learning outcomes to improve the curriculum:

The dean and the faculty of a law school shall conduct ongoing evaluation of the law school’s program of legal education, learning outcomes, and assessment methods; and shall use the results of this evaluation to determine the degree of student attainment of competency in the learning outcomes and to make appropriate changes to improve the curriculum.

This is the “closing the loop” of the assessment process: using the results of programmatic outcomes assessment to improve student learning.

So, what to do with the “old” way of strategic planning? Certainly, a school should still engage in a  strategic planning process that focuses on all of the important outcomes and goals of the school, of which assessment of student learning is just one piece. Paraphrasing a common expression, if you don’t measure it, it doesn’t get done. Indeed, one can interpret Standards 201 and 202 as still requiring a planning process of some kind, particularly to guide resource allocation.

Still, much of the way that some schools engage in strategic planning is wasteful and ineffective. Often, the planning cycle takes years and results in a beautiful, glossy brochure (complete with photos of happy students and faculty) that sits on the shelf. I’m much more a fan of quick-and-dirty strategic planning that involves efficiently setting goals and action items that can be accomplished over a relatively short time-horizon. The importance is not the product (the glossy brochure) but having a process that is nimble, updated often, used to guide allocation of resources, and serves as a self-accountability tool. (Here, I have to confess, my views on this have evolved since serving on the Strategic Priorities Review Team of our University. I now see much more value in the type of efficient planning I have described.)

In this respect, strategic planning and learning outcomes assessment should both have in common an emphasis on process, not product. Some of the assessment reports generated by schools as a result of regional accreditation are truly works of art, but what is being done with the information? That, to me, is the ultimate question of the value of both processes.

Links to ABA resources added

Under the Resources tab, I added a page with links to ABA resources, including the full text of the new ABA standards on outcomes and assessment, the Managing Director’s memo on the subject, and the “legislative history” behind Standard 301, 302, 314, and 315.

Why a Blog on Assessment in Legal Education?

When the American Bar Association first began discussing revision of its accreditation standards for the J.D. degree to include a full-blown assessment requirement, I was skeptical. I saw “assessment” as more higher ed-speak with no benefit to students. “We’re already assessing students – we give final exams, writing assignments, and projects, and we track bar passage and career outcomes, right?” Later, as I learned more about assessment—including the differences between course-level and programmatic assessment—I came to the conclusion that, stripped of its at-times burdensome lingo, it was a simple process with a worthy goal: improving student learning through data-driven analysis. The process, I learned, was rooted in a scholarly approach to learning: define outcomes, measure and analyze direct and indirect evidence of student learning, and then use the information learned to improve teaching and learning.

Legal education is one of the last disciplines to adopt an assessment philosophy. Looking at assessment reports from programs, such as pharmacy, that have used assessment for years can be daunting. They have come a long way in a relatively short period of time. There is a dearth of information about assessment in legal education and, hence, this blog was born.  My goal is to bring together resources on law school assessment in one place while also offering my observations and practical insights to help keep assessment from drowning in lingo and endless report writing.  I hope readers find it valuable.