Monday, February 16, 2009

Ask the Administrator: HS vs. CC Faculty

A regular correspondent writes:

What, exactly, are CC faculty supposed to do that substantially distinguishes them from high school teachers?

I don't mean this in a derogatory manner, I was a high school teacher and found the job incredibly fulfilling.

Similarly, I was a full-time CC instructor on the tenure-track.  In order to be approved for tenure I was expected to teach classes (actually semester hours) to a reasonable standard of competency.  I was also expected to take part in the organizational structure of the college by serving on committees.  It was expected that I keep current in the methods of pedagogy in my field and demonstrate that I was attempting to improve my instruction (note that this is pre-tenure).

I could write the exact same job description for a high school teacher, except that they would spend far more time in the classroom on a weekly basis. I taught more classes, had more preps and had more students as a HS teacher than a CC teacher and I worked far more school days.  That 'month break' between fall and spring semesters sounds more like 10 days depending on the year.

The weird thing?  The salaries were about the same, maybe a little better at the CC.  And, the opportunities for overloads, intersession classes, summer classes made the possible salary significantly better.

What justifies this disparity?  Especially in these economic times?

For reference, my academic qualifications were better when I got the HS job than at any time during my CC gig and I was a far better teacher.  While teaching HS I just kept reflecting on how much free time I had while teaching at my CC.

I guess the corresponding question is, 'how are CC administrators paid in relationship to school district personnel who have similar jobs?'  I've got no idea/experience on this one other than to note that many, if not most superintendents make well in excess of 100K, but I've got no idea what the lower level folks make.

I'll start by saying that this varies by state, so generalizations that are relatively fair in one state may be wildly off-base in another. Depending on locale, one venue might be unionized and the other not, for example. I'll be interested to see what my wise and worldly readers have to contribute on this one, since they hail from many different places.

That said, I'll address the academic side first. In the geographic areas with which I'm relatively familiar, high school teachers have historically been teachers first and subject matter experts second (or sometimes third). On the positive side, that has often meant that they've been trained in the quirks of child and adolescent behavior at a level that most laypeople haven't. On the negative side, I had teachers in high school whose subject-matter mastery sometimes lagged my own, and I wasn't alone. (I clearly remember explaining the Missouri Compromise to my American History teacher, who thought that it involved partitioning Missouri. You know, North Missouri and South Missouri.) The worst – and I'm not making this up – was the fifth-grade math teacher whose grasp of fractions was bad enough that we graded quizzes by majority vote. If TB came home and told me that, I'd be in his principal's office the next day with a pitchfork in one hand and a torch in the other.

At the cc level, instructors are professors. That means their primary expertise is in their subject matter, with a secondary focus – if that – on instruction. While I've seen some great teachers, many good ones, and a few regrettable ones, I haven't seen a single one who didn't at least understand the subject matter of the course. The least effective ones often can't communicate their knowledge effectively, but at least the knowledge is there.

On the higher end of the scale, we expect professors to have the capacity to explain things above the level they're teaching. That's why we require Master's degrees, and prefer Doctorates, even to teach 101-level classes. The idea is to be able to handle student queries that don't follow the book, to follow developments in the field before they show up in textbook revisions, and to equip students with some of the depth necessary for them to succeed at the next level. Our graduates transfer to four-year colleges, and they need to be ready to compete there. (According to the data we've been able to gather, they actually graduate at higher rates at their destination schools than do 'native' students.) Professors who have the capacity to do higher-level classes can provide that extra depth, so that's who we hire.

It's probably true that the 'face time' demands on high school teachers are higher. At my cc, which isn't unusual, professors have to teach 15 hours per week and provide a few office hours on top of that. They also have to do a few committees. All told, they can do the scheduled work in probably 25 hours per week, when classes are in session. That's not counting prep time, or grading, both of which can be monstrous time sinks, but both of which can be done at home, or at night, or on Sunday. High school teachers have to do five days per week, six (or so) classes per day, starting at an unhealthy hour of the morning. (Why, or why, haven't American high schools adjusted to the research which shows that the adolescent body clock starts and finishes the day later than everybody else's? But I digress.) They also have to prep and grade, and sometimes do lunchroom or hall monitor duty, too. (I literally can't imagine my faculty doing that.) I imagine that high school teaching involves less curricular work, since curricula are pretty rigidly standardized, but that can bring its own set of stresses.

I can't really address the salary question directly, since I don't know the ins and outs of local high school salary schedules. (Yes, they're unionized, as are my faculty.) My impression anecdotally is that they're roughly comparable, though you get tenure faster in the high school system. And I have even less clue what, say, high school assistant principals make around here, so I really can't address that.

What I like about this question is the implication that some folks who are absolutely killing themselves as college adjuncts might be able to find very satisfying lives teaching high school. In some disciplines, that's probably true, and well worth some mulling.

Wise and worldly readers – any thoughts or observations on this one? Keep in mind, the question isn't meant to be derogatory towards either group; it seems to be (at least I'm reading it as) an actual question.

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