|Title||Ingredients for Effective Educational Change|
|Preview||Just as the student body should be challenged to grow academically and socially, so the institution should be challenged to improve and to strive for excellence.|
Every time students and faculty return for a new school year, they discover that new policies, plans, and changes have been made. Faster than Apple can roll out a new iPod, the attendance policy is adjusted, a new grading scale is implemented, and different technology is used. Education in America has come a long way since the days of the one-room schoolhouse, thanks to the uncanny ability of teachers and administrators to accept and adapt to change.
Although at times unsettling, change can be an indicator that an institution is healthy. Just as the student body should be challenged to grow academically and socially, so the institution should be challenged to improve and to strive for excellence.
Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, has grown from 154 students in 1971 to 12,000 residential students and almost 54,000 online students today. With such a large and constantly changing student body, it is imperative that Liberty continue to adjust to its campus, curriculum, and policies every year in order to offer the highest-quality education. This fall, the school standardized its grading practices, began reviewing almost 30 academic programs, rolled out a new attendance policy, and gained accreditation for three new programs. The success of changes such as these is a balance of two factors: student focus and group input.
Focus on Students
Dr. Karen Parker, dean of Liberty's School of Education, understands the drastic changes teachers sometimes face. She graduated from college early and began teaching at the age of 19 in a small Christian elementary school in Florida. Shortly into her new career she was asked to leave second grade and teach high school.
Since her first day in the classroom, Parker has filled teaching roles ranging from home economics instructor to computer skills guru in order to meet the needs of her school's student body. Although some of these positions have required her to learn new skill sets or receive additional licensure, she believes that it is vital for institutions and teachers to adapt to the rapidly changing needs of students.
"The K-12 setting is different today than it was 30 years ago," Parker said. "My daughter teaches kindergarten, and she is expected to use technology in her kindergarten class. She has an LCD projector in her room and she has smart boards that she can check out and iPod touches she can apply for," Parker said. "We used to think of kindergarten as being just cutting and coloring, but that's not what it is any more."
Technology has also affected how universities prepare future teachers and how accrediting bodies assess programs. Online education has become more prominent and more validated in the last 10 years, both on the collegiate and K-12 levels. Most major accrediting bodies now recognize online education as a valid way to complete coursework. Today, Liberty's online teacher education program is accredited by the Virginia Department of Education and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE)-a feat many online programs have not yet reached.
"It is important to note that we have not sacrificed our Christian mission and what we stand for in order to gain accreditation," Parker said. "Our students leave us with an ACSI certificate and [are] eligible for public school certification. We want to prepare our candidates so the Lord could lead them to either private or public schools."
Other than technology, one of the biggest changes the academic community faces today is the ever increasing importance of accountability. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has made it imperative for teachers to document evidence of learning. Although the requirements can be overwhelming, Parker suggests viewing the resulting policy changes from the philosophical purpose of teaching.
"Looking at it from our mission in teaching, [accountability is] what we want.... it's not just that our teacher candidates pass their licensure test, but it's also that our teacher candidates go out there and have success in the classroom," she said.
Working at an academic institution is more than a job; it's a calling. As 1 Corinthians 15:58 (NIV) states, when a teacher is dedicated to God's calling, his or her "labor in the Lord is not in vain."
In a democratic nation, the feeling of "having a voice" is extremely important. If an institution or teacher wants to implement change, they should first recognize the value of feedback from their students. Multiple times per year, Liberty circulates student-assessment surveys. Surveys collected from the 2009/10 school year contributed to the university's decision to standardize the grading scale to the traditional 100-point model across all academic departments and to create a 1,000-point schema for all grade books.
"Our goal is to simplify and streamline the grading scale to provide consistency across the undergraduate curriculum," said Dr. Ronald Godwin, Liberty's vice chancellor and provost. "Measurable academic success leads to greater [student] retention."
Before implementing these grading changes, university leaders from various departments-including the Center for Academic Support and Advising Services, the Office of the Provost, and the Dean's Council (faculty leadership)-worked together to research the move's possible effectiveness. Then the Dean's Council formally voted on the proposed policy. This process ensured that all administrative and faculty members had the opportunity to influence the decision.
Student-opinion surveys can and should also be used in the K-12 setting. Opinion surveys for young children can use basic symbols, such as a happy face, a sad face, and a straight face, to let teachers know which activities their students enjoyed.
"If students feel their opinion is valued, it helps them to feel engaged in the classroom," Parker said. "Offering choices is another way to get students involved. If we are going to do a thematic study on insects, for example, there might be a selection of books or types of projects that the students can choose from."
This same principle should also be applied to administrative decisions. Faculty members are much more likely to embrace policy change if they feel that their opinions and positions have been heard and fairly considered. Although a complete consensus is hard to come by in any situation, it is better to communicate a problem to faculty and solicit feedback than to simply announce a decision.
Although some policies are initiated by student preference, many others are initiated at the administrative level in order to ensure academic quality. Liberty is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), so the school's Office of Institutional Effectiveness is continually evaluating academic programs in order to maintain a healthy accreditation status.
"This year numerous academic programs will be reviewed by faculty, the department chair, and the dean of the school where the program resides," said Dr. Ronald Hawkins, Liberty's vice provost for the graduate school and online programs.
Although time-consuming, these reviews often result in improvements, which in turn produce a better academic experience for students and support Liberty's mission of developing Christ-centered men and women with the values, knowledge, and skills essential to make an impact on tomorrow's world.
"We look at one-third of our syllabi and courses ever year, and every five years we do a program review where we look at the entire program," Parker said.
A collegial spirit in a school setting not only prospers change, but it allows a school to run smoothly and supports student learning. Such a spirit also upholds biblical principles: "Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up" (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10). When faculty and administrators lift their students and each other up, the message of Jesus Christ can truly shine.
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