Raising achievement and reducing disparity - The story of Evaluation Associates
2019 is a big year for Evaluation Associates Ltd. Not only are we continuing to work with hundreds of schools, kura, and Kāhui Ako across New
Zealand who are committed to improving outcomes for their learners, we are celebrating 20 years of doing so, and doing it well.
I sat with Michael Absolum, the founder of Evaluation Associates, to find out the journey of the company over the last 20 years.
What is the story of 20 years of Evaluation Associates, in a nutshell?
Twenty years at EA is, to my mind anyway, the story of how to provide the best possible support to teachers in schools so that kids learn better. It started with me just trying to support assessment systems in schools as this was something that they were struggling to do, especially at the advent of Tomorrow’s Schools. I came from an evaluation background at ERO; I was frustrated with writing reports telling schools that they needed to improve things for their students and recognising that telling them how was not enough to enable them to do it. I needed to move to helping them to make those improvements. I started by working with a number of keen schools to formulate simple evaluative practices and build a notion of continuous improvement. That's what we were trying to do 20 years ago, and what we are still trying to do today.
Your name, and that of Evaluation Associates, is synonymous with Assessment for Learning. How did that come about?
Over time, our work morphed from assessment systems to having an Assessment for Learning focus. This was at the advent of many PLD contracts to support schools starting with the ABLe contract. So I wrote some proposals, and these were successful. Ironically, at the time, I didn’t have a clue what assessment for learning was about, because I never saw myself as a teacher really, I saw myself as an educational psychologist. I am a trained teacher but not really a teacher the way that my colleagues at Evaluation Associates are. So I asked Lin Avery to come and work alongside me and figure out what AfL means, and she did. It took a long time actually, because what she did, that Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black and other AfL researchers hadn’t done at that time really, was say ‘We need to be explicit about what this means in the classroom. What does the teacher actually do, what do the kids actually do if assessment is really for learning?’
From there, you moved to writing Clarity in the Classroom?
No. It was a longer process than that. Over the next five years, we developed the Assessment for Learning archway, which was then followed by the Assessment for Learning rubrics, and finally Clarity in the Classroom. The last layer of development was The Leadership Dimensions matrix – a collaboration between EA and UACEL – which clarify the knowledge,skills and dispositions of effective leadership for improvement.
What sets the EA approach to assessment for learning and school improvement apart?
One of the points of difference in how we approached AfL, compared to others, was the idea that effective classroom practice - practice that supports learners to be agentic, practice that leads to self-regulation, practice that demystifies the learning process – was based on the idea that relationships were key to learning. Interestingly, this is something which the international research around AfL is only catching up with.
So you were ahead of the game? How did you see what others are now just starting to?
How we got there earlier, having Learning-focused Relationships as the foundation for effective teaching and learning, was by approaching AfL from a different route to the international researchers. Our AfL model is student-centric – whereas other models of AfL are often defined at the teacher-oriented technique level. Working closely alongside my colleague and friend Viviane Robinson, who was at that point at the University of Auckland, I drew on the principles of Open-to-Learning™ and what this would look like in practice. EA’s approach was different to others.
From this strong Assessment for Learning background, we’ve developed a rich way of working with schools, kura, and Kāhui Ako – at a classroom level, a leadership level, and a systems level.
Evaluation Associates has grown from a small company to a large one – is that the crowning pinnacle of the last 20 years?
We have nearly 90 staff collectively working in this complex manner across Aotearoa. But the number of people at EA doesn’t in itself excite me about where we’ve got to. What drives me, and still gets me leaping up out of bed in the morning, is that our purpose is to find ways to raise achievement and reduce disparity. This weaves through all aspects of our work: from PLD, supporting both beginning and experienced principals, using assessment tools effectively for learning, and evaluating systems and processes for various organisations. Ninety dedicated people focusing on raising achievement and reducing disparity means that we can have the impact that I desired all those years ago.
With more than 20 years of school improvement under your belt, what advice could you give to leaders and teachers?
It is our job to support teachers and leaders to focus on this one super idea: raising achievement and reducing disparity. Educators can find this overwhelming at times; often because we make it more complicated than it need be. I think teachers and leaders feel things are too much when they can't see the cohering concepts. You must look for the big ideas and everything else falls off those and if there's too much there, it's because you're looking at the trees. You've got to get back to the forest, the forest is where the value is, and that's all.
Just to mix metaphors, there is a brilliant part in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I’m currently re-reading after about a 40-year gap, where it talks about the metaphor of people climbing a mountain. They tend to get lost on the sides because they forget their purpose and they get involved in sort of wandering around and around but in fact the whole point of the mountain is the top. Often in education, purpose is the first thing that falls out, but the purpose is the top of the mountain, the reason we are there in the first place. Whether it is our forest or mountain, our focus has to be improving student outcomes and knowing how those improvements were made.
So what lies ahead for Evaluation Associates?
As Evaluation Associates takes a moment to reflect on what we have achieved to date, I’m already speculating about the next 20 or even 30 years. Ideally, we’ve supported schools to raise achievement and reduce disparity. But more importantly, we’ve supported teachers and leaders to evaluate how they’ve done this and know the impact that they have had.
From the desk of Megan Peterson
Business Development and Innovation Manager
@ Evaluation Associates Ltd.