Tuesday, February 02, 2010


Ask the Administrator: Jobs in Education Reform

A dispirited correspondent writes:

I'm wondering if you have any words of advice for those of us who are interested in paying jobs in the field of educational reform. I need to earn a living, but I'd like to further the cause if I could. I have 20 years experience in the college classroom, and am currently full time and tenured at a community college, but I am more than ready to leave the classroom. It's painful to me to have to constantly "game" statistics on so-called student learning outcomes while dumbing down the curriculum ever more to improve our "retention" and "completion" rates. We are getting ready for our re-accreditation, so we are in "full assessment mode"; I find it harder and harder to cooperate with the fundamental dishonesty of the whole process. I'd like to leave and work for real reform and excellence in education. My Ph.D. is in one of the humanities, not ed leadership, and I don't have a math/statistics background, so perhaps I'm not the ideal candidate. Then again, who is?

My knowledge of this is pretty limited, so I'll ask my wise and worldly readers to chime in and fill out the picture.

I'll start with the obvious: if your local administration is pushing you to dumb down the curriculum in the name of retention, then your local administrators are idiots. The flaws in their strategy are several and basic. If you water down the degree, you'll lose transferability over time. If you water down the classes, it will become harder to maintain order in the classroom, since students will see no reason to take sanctions seriously. If you tell creative workers that their daily work should be entirely in the service of pleasing the customer, you'll actually get more displeased customers, because the quality of the work will suffer when their morale collapses.

Assessment is another matter, but I'll just say that if it's entirely dead weight, they aren't doing it right.

That said, I'll concede that many of my administrative colleagues seem to miss the big picture. (That's one of the reasons I've stayed in administration so long. I've seen the damage lousy admins can do, and I want to prevent it.) It sounds like you want to address the big picture. Getting paid for it is the tricky part.

Obviously, one way to do that is to go into administration yourself. That will take time and patience, though, since the first rung of the ladder involves far more trivia than thought.

Another way is to look at grant-funded programs. Philanthropic agencies usually have some sort of change or reform agenda; the trick is finding an agency with an agenda you find congenial, and that needs the skills you bring. One fairly common model is a grant that funds a partnership between a social service agency and a community college, usually teaching non-credit courses for targeted populations in specific niche occupations. Introducing yourself to the continuing-ed side of your college and expressing interest in working with them can open up opportunities in ways that are hard to anticipate.

Nonprofits and various ngo's often do the kind of work that seems to speak to you, though you'd have to figure out what your unique contribution would be. If it won't be on the financial or technical side, it could be on the fundraising or publicity side. I wouldn't expect to find a full-time, decent-paying job right out of the gate, but if you're willing to take baby steps, you might be able to find a niche.

Of course, there's always writing. That's my personal fave.

I'm reasonably sure that some of my wise and worldly readers have something to offer on this one, so I'll put out an open call. Does anyone know another way to make a living while fighting the good fight?

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I had a really negative reaction to this letter. If the stuff I'm saying below isn't valid because of some details, please disregard.

Firstly: most ed degrees are basically BS. All you need to do a good job is some basic stat that you can take at the undergrad level at the local state school. You may or may not need to take some math to get yourself to that point. Even then, you'll be astonished at the terrible quality of education research, which seems desperate to prove that you can measure the unmeasurable.

Secondly: do you have tenure or not? If you have tenure, then get serious about your bureaucratic resistance to stupid. That's what "you having tenure" is for. They can't fire you, so teach however you'd like to.

Third: not every institution is remotely the same on this issue. Different places are really different, so maybe it's just time to move.

Finally: the place to start is not from a position of powerlessness. Get on the Board of Trustees, learn how politics works. You're trying to create an academic solution to a political problem. Nobody actually thinks that dumbing down curricula and shortchanging students is actually a good idea; instead, people are either responding to a crazy funding board or are themselves corrupt in some way. This also gets back to "Are you tenured or not?" I can think of few more untouchable activists than a tenured CC professor crusading for academic quality at his or her institution. Read Alinsky's "Rules For Radicals" and start finding like-minded folks to organize with.

Fundamentally, don't try to solve a political problem with BS academics. Either vote with your feet or use the tenure that you have and I don't.
Don't automatically assume that increasing retention is done solely by dumbing down the curriculum. Students know when they are being patronized and will leave if they believe they aren't getting their money's worth.

Retention is a very complex issue. I've yet to find "Easy Coursework" to be a retention tool worth having. "Viable Job Opportunties Upon Graduation" seems to work best.
PunditusMaximus, he/she explicitly says he/she's tenured in the letter: "[I] am currently full time and tenured at a community college"
First of all, there are plenty of ways to enhance your own classes to increase retention, other than simply 'dumbing down'. Reduce lecture time in favor of directed group projects and discussions. If you have read any of the research into what works in terms of success and retention, that is where you would start.

Second of all, it is certainly true that too many educators pay lip service to the current assessment bandwagon, and the incoming accreditors will no doubt ding your college for it, no matter how hard you try. That being said, there are a ton of small-scale in-classroom assessment techniques that you could use that would inform you about how well your students are doing. If you do more of those, your students will appreciate it, you will learn about what works and what doesn't, and you will probably get administrators off your back.

If you start doing all of the above, you may re-invigorate your career. It sounds to me like you are simply burned out and need a change. That change could occur in your own classroom at your own school.

You could go into Ed Reform as a vocation, but I would suggest starting out by making it an avocation. A Psych instructor at our college got tired of the teaching grind and started up a Teaching and Learning Center (TLC). He started small by simply offering a T&L workshop for interested parties, then managed to get enough people interested to justify some classroom release time. It took him 2-3 years, but he worked himself entirely out of the classroom and into a fancy high-tech teaching lab that he helped design.

If I were you, this is the path I would take, retaining my tenured faculty status in the bargain. There are plenty of Ed Reform gurus out there, but a goodly number are selling some sort of snake oil. As for gaining a statistics background, that certainly helps understand if there are any correlations in the data you have collected, but I have been unimpressed with most such studies, which generally go something like this: "We thought that students would be more successful if we implemented Plan X, which would emphasize the learning of this series of Y skills. We incorporated Plan X into several classes, and sure enough, students in those classes became more proficient at Y skills, compared to the control classes where Plan X was not implemented."

In any event, there is a lot of grant money out there that is dedicated to education reform. I suggest that you start working on getting some of that money so that you can conduct Ed Reform research at your own institution.
If recent history is any guide, the quickest way to become an expert on school reform is to play basketball on the right courts. How's your jump shot?
Anon -- the question was meant to be rhetorical. Sorry to be unclear.

Again, apologies if I was excessively harsh in my response; something just rubbed me the wrong way, and I'm well aware that I don't have all the details.
If you have actually been told to dumb down the curriculum to increase retention, pass that documented evidence on to the accrediting organization before their next visit. Ditto if you think the assessments being used for your course have been manipulated in some way.

If no one has actually ordered you to change your class and its assessments, then what is your complaint?
"If you have actually been told to dumb down the curriculum to increase retention..."
Administrators aren't that naive. They'll just tell you (never in writing) to make the class more fun, that headcount is important, that such-and-such student needs this class to graduate and would you consider letting him redo the final paper, that your high DFW rate means the curriculum may be "out of date," that you just need to be more "engaging," etc. Now that I have tenure I just refuse to go along (before I had tenure it was a different story), but it does wear on you when you realize that no one above the department chair level cares about actual student learning, and you're spending all of the extra time and effort in your classes and getting lower student evals just to Do the Right Thing.

What makes it worthwhile is that there are sometimes as many as 4-5 students per class who really do appreciate the challenge, rise to it, and benefit from it. I daresay the rest may not be ready for college at this point in their lives, and are confused and resentful when confronted with college-level work.
" First of all, there are plenty of ways to enhance your own classes to increase retention, other than simply 'dumbing down'. Reduce lecture time in favor of directed group projects and discussions. If you have read any of the research into what works in terms of success and retention, that is where you would start."
I think this would work differently with different kinds of students and levels of preparation. Do you have a link to any of this research?
My fundamental issue with getting students to work is precisely the one Anonymous details above -- the idea of working at the college level is just outside their experience. I once held a review session for a mathematically intensive class where none of the students had gotten more than four hours of sleep the night before. I cancelled the session and we just talked about how college was different from high school or their family's lives overall for a couple hours. Probably the best part of the course for those kids.
Seems to me that much of education in the US today is so messed up! From how we hire, to how we train, to how we approach curriculum, assessment and the like. I have a 4th grade son dealing with policies of No Child Left Behind (that I was hoping would "go away") and a daughter about to start Kindergarten. I'm already bracing myself!

When it comes to adjuncting, several people have pointed out that we are a broken system touting higher educational degrees as a virtue but the minute you're done with the thesis or the dissertation -- good luck earning a living! The cost of a B.A. alone outweighs what an adjunct can earn in several years (depending on varying geographical regions).

Then, we promote the power of collaboration until some unethical person comes along and takes ownership of your intellectual property which leaves someone burnt past a crisp.

I could go on and on -- but the question posed is essentially, "is it worth my time, trouble and the expense to pursue a PhD in Leadership in Higher Ed.?"

The underlying premise we're also buying into is that we can't be leaders without a degree that says so. I think that many of us ought to seek ways to reform education, whether or not we are paid to do so. That is a very hard sell for struggling adjuncts in particular which is why I do hope that those of you in FT positions will continue to consider ways to reform what must be reformed -- whatever is within your sphere of influence.

--Independent Adjunct Advocate (IAA)
What Next Survey for Essential Educational Reform
The effort to advance Instructional Science and Teacher Preparation has proven to be more difficult than it would appear. The lynch pin to such progress has centered around creating a systematic means of identifying and promulgating Best Instructional Practices. There is no such thing as a profession, other than teaching that has not done so. Our more recent efforts have stalled out as we face a lack of will to do so. This raises the difficult issue of What Next? Implied in this question are several others such as: is it even known/realized that this step has not been taken? Why has it not been taken? And, how can we get this elementary matter behind us?
Strictly speaking there can be no such thing as teacher education without identifying Best Instructional Practices, nor can teachers or anyone else be held accountable for student achievement until Best Practices have been promulgated and used in the nation’s, make that the globe’s classrooms. Please help us to plan the next steps by clicking on or pasting the very brief survey at this URL: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/SFD9L3H. For a heads-up on this effort to date see:
1. http://bestmethodsofinstruction.com/

3. https://bestpracticesteachers.groupsite.com/blog

Anthony V. Manzo, Ph.D./ Professor Emeritus/ avmanzo@aol.com
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