Monday, March 12, 2012


Rewarding Teaching

What would it look like if, say, the Federal government were to decide to prioritize good college-level teaching at the same level that it supports university research?

This piece in IHE addressed the question, but it struck me as falling badly short of reality.  

Briefly, the piece suggests that Congress establish a National Pedagogy Foundation as a sort of counterpart to the NEH or the NSF.  By pooling a pile of money into a project to award grant funds to deserving projects that promise to advance quality teaching, it suggests, we’d be much more likely to see tenure committees take teaching as seriously as they take research.  Until then, “internal mission creep” on the ground -- in which each stratum of higher education imitates those higher -- will defeat the best intentions.

The author works at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Encouraging good teaching in the context of a research university is important, and the remedy offered here may have some limited traction in that context.  But outside that context, it misses the point.

Quick quiz: Among community colleges with tenure systems, which counts more: teaching or research?

Teaching.  That has always been true.  And that makes sense, given the mission of the institution.  Grants are lovely, of course, but they aren’t required for tenure, and they wouldn’t make much difference on the ground.  (If the good folks at Harvard would like to investigate what it means to value good teaching, I suggest a field trip to nearby Bunker Hill Community College.)  

Followup quiz: which of the following has more students taking classes: research universities or community colleges?

Community colleges, by a substantial margin.  So if you want to make a measurable difference in the quality of teaching for a broad population, you’d start here.  Harvard can wait.

So let’s say, then, that we wanted the Federal government to help improve the caliber of teaching at community colleges, and even at four-year public state colleges.  What would a National Pedagogy Foundation have to do?

My first thought is to define the mission.  Is the goal to improve actually-existing teaching quickly, or to be transformative over time?  If it’s the former, the only serious answer -- the ONLY serious answer -- is a massive, sustained infusion of operating funds into college budgets.  Not conditional funding, or “seed” funding, or funding with strings: straight-up operational funding.  And it would have to come with “matching” requirements, to keep the states and localities from cheaping out and just using the new money as an excuse to cut their own contributions.

I really can’t emphasize this enough.  Grants require project managers, and come with expiration dates.  Money with expiration dates doesn’t mesh with well with tenure; typically, any faculty hired would be on the cusp of tenure just when the money goes away.  So too much of the money is lost to administrative costs, and that which remains can’t be used for faculty.  But with committed, sustained operating funding, the existing administrative infrastructure will do, and we could actually hire faculty.  

If it’s meant to be transformative, then it needs to be both competitive, substantial, and sustained. (The competition could be based on how plausibly innovative the proposals are, and how scalable they are.  No more boutique programs.)  It needs to be long-term enough that the institution can risk failure of the first version without necessarily losing the funding.  Anything truly transformative will be high-risk; in this fiscal climate, colleges will be risk-averse because they have to be.

In either case, though, the key is that the grants aren’t directed to individual faculty.  They’re directed to institutions, and are under institutional control.  That’s the only way to reach enough faculty and students to actually matter.  Giving Prof. Smith a year off from teaching to expound on what a wonderful teacher he is -- the usual M.O. -- just isn’t a serious answer.  Directing grants to individual faculty recreates the star system.  There may be an argument for a star system in research, but there simply isn’t in teaching.  If you want to improve teaching for enough people to move the needle, you’ll need to move up the average.  That means improving the stars, the average, and even the struggling.  That means scale, and that means institutions.

I’m sure the Harvard Graduate School of Education means well, but honestly, if you’re serious about undergraduate education, you have to look where the undergraduates are.  If anyone from the Feds would like to drop me a line, I’m reachable at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.  But don’t hold some sort of national teacher of the year contest, and don’t look to a few supergeniuses as salvation.  Any serious answer has to work at large scale.  That means working with, through, and on behalf of institutions.  You just have to pick the right institutions.  

Yes, please, no more boutique programs with their catchy names and motivational speakers. I've been in education 30 years and I've seen so many boutique programs crash and burn.

The best teaching is when the student knows the teacher cares about him/her and his/her learning. Mentoring as much as possible.
Given that the majority -- perhaps 60% or even more -- of classes at community colleges are taught by adjuncts, doesn't any initiative aimed at full-time faculty simply ignore the elephant in the classroom?
If you want to improve teaching for enough people to move the needle, you’ll need to move up the average. That means improving the stars, the average, and even the struggling.

Well said.
Yes, great start -- starting at the institutional level. But where exactly? I'll admit bias, as a director of a well-funded, well-structured, highly functioning faculty service / professional development unit at Central Michigan, that well-trained educational developers can have a significant impact on teaching effectiveness. We have the data that clearly indicates a link between our faculty services (sometimes a small service, and sometimes long-term ones) and new, high-impact teaching behaviors with students. -Jim or
I'm wondering about the source of this statement:
"which of the following has more students taking classes: research universities or community colleges?

Community colleges, by a substantial margin."

According to the National Center for Data Statistics, 35% of college students were enrolled in 2-year, public universities in 2009. That's as close as they get to a community college breakout. Limiting the pool to undergraduates only brings the fraction up to 40%. Two-year students don't even quite make up half of public institution students; they make up 48%.

Since the data also show that the majority of the 2-year public college students are part time while the overall majority of students are full time, less than 40% of total undergraduate teaching (on a per student in a class basis) is done at community colleges. I couldn't find the number for that, but it also seems important.

(table 201)

Community colleges are a large and important part of higher education, but I don't see where you're getting your numbers.
That should have said National Center for Education Statistics, sorry.
I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Sorry, but I read that paragraph as one where there was a pause for laughter after the first sentence, with this one delivered as the punch line.

IIRC, Harvard was where the concept of training education researchers, rather than developing excellent teachers via an apprentice-type program, got its start. This is just a proposal to fund even more of the same, encouraging faculty to do research about teaching rather than become better teachers.

Otherwise, I am with you 100%.

And a big +1 to the comment about adjuncts. I wonder what fraction of freshman classes at Harvard are taught by adjuncts or TAs? (Just like I wonder how many classes at UCLA are taught by adjuncts who also teach at neighboring CCs, if you know which other article I am talking about.) Has Harvard ever denied tenure for poor teaching?

PS -
Although Table 201 of the NCES report does not address the question directly, I think there are fewer students at research universities than at the other 4-year schools. CCs might trail the number enrolled at non-R1 colleges and universities, but I doubt if they trail R1s.
I've got to say, I feel like you and the original article are talking about two different things... and I say that having taught four courses in one day at a teaching-intensive (although four-year) university. I agree that institutions need operational support, and I agree that money to institutions is important to good teaching. BUT ALSO I believe that as much as structural, institutional change is important (particularly in upping the percentage of full-time, ideally tenure-line, faculty), I don't think that this was actually the author of the original article's POINT. I think that original author's point is about how to make teaching valuable within the prevailing *culture* of the academy - across institution types. And I think his point about the "vision" for a federal agency, here, is ultimately, a point about including teaching as a "prestige" factor. And the central point of this is about *scholarship* of teaching, pedagogy, assessment. It's NOT about work on the ground. It's about how we value teaching in *theory.*

Now, we can criticize this vision as being self-serving to the eduPHD people (a reasonable criticism, I think), but if we equate what that author calls for with institutional support by the federal government... well, that seems to be sloppy argumentation.

Note: I don't disagree with a single thing that you call for, DD. But nothing that you call for addresses the problem that the original article poses, which is about how to make pedagogical thinking as important as disciplinary research-oriented thinking, in terms of the prestige of institutions.

Frankly, what you suggest won't do anything for the cultural problem that the author of the inspiring article notes. And also, I don't think that this author is wrong in suggesting that you need faculty - and not institutional - buy-in, in order to make a cultural shift, when it comes to thinking about teaching.

The big question of this piece is clearly stated in the concluding paragraph: "Who, then, will get teaching on America’s research agenda?" The author isn't talking about how to support teaching. The author is talking about how to make *thinking* about teaching, and researching it, and writing about it, an ideological good - one that relates to institutional success.

In other words, what you suggest here is great. It just has nothing to do with the article that you purport to write in objection to, not really. These are parallel projects - not projects that are opposed to one another. At least in my reading.

Finally: Looking at my own institution? I have little faith that my institution will use any money that is given to it to do anything useful in terms of teaching. Better to give the money to faculty on the ground - even if those faculty are only doing abstract research about teaching - than to give the institution resources that will only pile more uncompensated responsibilities on faculty while giving them no support to complete those tasks adequately. (And yet, another administrator will have to be hired to deal with this new initiative, and that person will make twice my salary....)
I thought the whole problem was that we as a society don't care about teaching very much, so we're perfectly happy to have it done for starvation wages and at a volume guaranteed to produce problems.
Yes, exactly, to the last two comments. If teaching were more highly valued in general in our society, we wouldn't see so many ridiculous attacks on teachers in the public discourse. Politicians would look to easier targets for cheap shots and ridicule.

Institutionally, three things that might help improve teaching (at my school):
1. Cut the teaching load from 5/5 to anything else.
2. Instead of hiring 5 adjuncts to teach 6 different sections, hire 1 or 2 and give them each more sections. More security and less scrambling from job to job means more time for teaching.
3. For the love of God, make existing campus-based teaching & professional development opportunities open to ALL who teach here, not just to tenure-track people! Makes me nuts - our instructional development center frequently goes begging for participants in workshops, etc., yet turns away non-tenure faculty. And along those lines, actually FUND the campus instructional development center.
DD one thing you might consider - with administrative overhead running 55% at r1 schools, grants are like shots in the arm for the operations side of the house. CCs never see this because they have a lower admin overhead limit and I would argue that's a good thing because it makes grants " unprofitable" at the CC level and prevents administrator from turning to grants as a potential source of operating funds.
As an aside, low wages are not an indicator that society doesn't value teaching. They indicate either a significant excess of teachers competing for employment, or the perception that each teacher is adding relatively little value. I favor the first explanation.
Actually Edmund, teaching salaries also reflect the public's total lack of willingness to pay for the services they receive from the state and their inability to invest in infrastructural improvements and safety net programs for other people. In California, the trend seems to be something like representation without taxation - at least for the wealthy and corporations.

It also reflects the historical devaluation of work done by women. This applies both at the K-12 level and also to colleges, where predominantly female disciplines often have offered lower salaries to their new faculty - an effect that is magnified over time.
@Edmund: Nope! Because the low wages create low quality. Below-middle-class wages create frazzled teachers who don't have the capacity to give students individual attention and who create handoff nightmares for students when they drop out or become ill (with no health insurance).

The problem is that the public is very willing to accept low quality in instruction; if it weren't, then it would be willing to pay for higher quality instruction.

You're mistaking a supply-side argument (people are willing to take the jobs) for a demand-side argument (people are willing to accept low quality). Both are true, of course, but we as a society are dealing with revealed preference here.
Also, as conservatives continue their project to turn the US into Greece, the Class War creates a false sense that people are "willing" to accept situations which are increasingly inescapable.
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