Monday, April 18, 2011

Dedicated Teachers Hurting American Education

cross-posted from

Tenured Radical links to Nick Parker's Boston Globe piece about the life of adjunct college faculty, and adds some advice of her own to people entering the adjunct life. Both pieces are worth a read.

The two most important changes in American higher education over the last twenty years (neither of which rate much mention in the endless media jeremiads about higher education) are the gutting of funding for public universities (which now get only a fraction of their funding from public sources) and the switch (by every college, public and private, rich and poor) to a reliance on badly-paid part-time adjunct teachers for most basic instruction. Tenured and tenure-line faculty are now less than a quarter of all college teachers; fifteen percent are non-tenure-track but full-time, and twenty percent are grad students. The largest group of college teachers, at more than forty percent, are part-time adjuncts, with no tenure, no benefits, and no job security. They typically make between two and four thousand dollars per class; many scrape a living together by teaching at two, three, or even four schools at a time. As Parker points out, the number of adjuncts has more than tripled over the past thirty years. Everywhere in American colleges and universities, the full-time faculty is shrinking, and the number of adjuncts is growing.

(For those of you doing the math: the cost of a college education keeps growing well in excess of inflation, the salaries of tenure-line faculty grow at just above or sometimes just below the inflation rate, and the tenure-line faculty keep being replaced with cheaper part-timers who make a pittance. That result may be puzzling, but the arithmetic isn't.)

Now, if you favor Values and Character as an approach to complex social problems, and feel what higher education needs most is more dedicated professors who Truly Love Teaching, then all of these adjuncts are the answers to your prayers. Nearly half the college teachers in our country love teaching so much that they do it for poverty wages. That's not to say that tenured faculty don't love teaching (although the Values and Character crowd do sometimes imply that anyone getting dental benefits must be a burnt-out mercenary), but adjunct teachers' dedication and love of teaching is beyond question. The sacrifices they make to keep teaching are astounding.

Yet we keep hearing that higher education is in crisis and that students don't learn anything in college. But most students are being taught elementary and even mid-level classes by the most selfless and dedicated teachers you could hope for. How could this be?

It's not because the adjuncts, or part-timers, or contingent faculty are bad teachers. Most adjuncts are very, very good. It's extremely common to find adjuncts who are better classroom teachers than many of the full-time faculty: better at holding students' attention in class, better at managing time in the classroom, better at generating enthusiasm. Sure, many of my tenured colleagues are terrific at these things, too, and yes, not every single adjunct is a gifted teacher. But lots of them are.

So, dedicated good teachers, working cheap, and focused on nothing but teaching. If you're in the camp that says that higher education needs to be reformed by abolishing tenure, controlling costs, giving management more "flexibility," and keeping faculty from wasting their time on research, then replacing half the faculty with adjuncts should already have us well on the road to Paradise. They have no tenure, they are not paid or rewarded for research, they cost very very little, and they can be fired so easily it's not even officially firing them. A school can simply stop giving them classes one semester, because they don't even have a year-long contract. All of the reforms that the anti-tenure crowd say will fix everything have already happened to a large extent. So why aren't things fixed?

It turns out that having a large contingent of overworked and poorly paid teachers undertake a huge chunk of university teaching does not help students learn. (There have been studies done that prove this, but do you really need them?)

Most of those teachers are excellent; all of them are dedicated. Individually, each of them is an enormous asset. One or two of them in every department would be a godsend. But in large numbers, through no fault of their own, they become part of the problem. It doesn't matter how good they are, either as professionals or as people, because lack of individual virtue is not the problem. The problems of American higher education are the problems of a badly-designed system. That system not only abuses adjunct teachers but wastes their considerable talent and labor. Sacrificing so many gifted teachers' working lives to make undergraduate education better would be a crime. Sacrificing those people's working lives to make undergraduate education worse is unforgivable.

Here are just a few of the major problems that you get when so much teaching is done by part-timers, no matter how talented those part-timers are:

Disconnection from the curriculum
. A good college education means classes that meaningfully build on each other, especially within a major. Students learn certain intellectual tools in introductory classes, build on that base and add new skills in intermediate classes, and start doing more advanced work in the advanced courses. Some departments structure the learning experience better than others, but there has to be some kind of structure. It works best when the faculty in a department have ongoing conversations about what's supposed to be happening in which class, even if a lot of those conversations feel like arguments.

When one group of faculty teaches all the courses, up and down the line, those teachers develop a natural feel for what's supposed to happen when and for how well it's happening. If you teach both the advanced classes and the intro classes and a bunch of things in between, you're going to know what your intro students need to learn before they move on to the next class, and you're going to know what your advanced students have learned before they get to you. And if the sequence doesn't work, you're going to know that, too, and be able to do something about it.

But when a department is basically split into two faculties, with one group doing the advanced work and another, less powerful, group doing all of the basics and some of the intermediate classes, the course sequence will naturally tend to break up and be less effective. The people who are teaching the basics don't know how their students do later on; the people teaching the advanced stuff often feel that they can't actually teach it, because they have to catch their students up on the basics.

This problem looks different from each side of the tenure/adjunct divide. The permanent faculty often feel that students aren't learning enough in the introductory courses, and sometimes even feel that the students have been steered in an unproductive direction. (If you're a history professor who expects students to come to your class knowing how to use primary historical documents, but a lot of the intro teachers haven't been teaching them to do that, there's going to be trouble.) But there's little way to communicate that to the adjunct faculty, except as unproductive hostility. Getting hostile with badly overworked and underpaid teachers doesn't exactly get them in line with shared teaching goals. From the part-timers' perspective, the full-time faculty often seem to have unreasonable expectations about what the students should be doing in 100- and 200-level courses, and about entering students' preparation to do that work. It's a very natural thing to quietly pocket-veto the "unreasonable" parts of the curriculum, and teach the students as much as you feel they can absorb in a semester. But even if the expectations are really unreasonable, the faculty who set those expectations don't hear about it, so problems in the course sequence don't get fixed. Students just get passed along to courses they aren't quite ready for.

Dependence on student evaluations. When you teach semester to semester with no security, you need the department to view you as a good teacher. And most departments using large numbers of adjuncts don't have the resources to evaluate them except through the end-of-semester student evaluations.

Those evaluations are notoriously unreliable, especially as a measure of student learning. (If students learn a lot more or less than they would in a similar class elsewhere, how would the students know?)Evaluations are much more closely correlated with the easiness of a course's workload and grading.

It's much more useful to combine student feedback with other forms of teacher evaluation, such as classroom observations. None of the existing teacher-evaluation methods are perfect, but combining a few of them helps create at least a good-enough sense of what's going on. But observing dozens of part-timers is expensive and time consuming, and most places that are using a lot of part-timers are trying to save both on money and full-time employees. And student evaluation forms may be inaccurate, but they're dirt cheap.

This shifts an enormous amount of power to the students, who turn out to be interested (as a group) in easier workloads and higher grades. It's a basic fact of human nature that you feel smarter when you get an A than when you get a B-; if you get better grades, you feel like you've learned more, even if your class only covered two-thirds of the material it was supposed to. But part-timers don't get rewarded for how well prepared their students are in the next class; no one tracks that. They get rewarded for how happy the students are in the current class. If you're worried about getting another class next semester, you might feel like you need to have evaluation scores at least as high as the other part-timers'. And no matter how conscientious any particular teacher is about keeping standards high, that creates a general and powerful pressure to make standards increasingly easier.

Overwork. Introductory classes are especially labor-intensive. They squeeze as many students as possible considering the amount of grading that will be required for each student, and usually push the envelope of the possible. Full-time faculty, if they teach intro classes at all, generally have a balanced load of introductory and more advanced classes, which make different kinds of demands. But adjuncts teach a full and more than full load of intro courses, each of which maximizes the sheer amount of heavy lifting the teacher does. Teaching five of those at once doesn't magically create more hours in the week to do all that grading and preparation.

Most adjuncts deal with this by working insanely hard. But even so, it's impossible to grade 150 papers a week as well as you would grade 50 papers a week. Something has to give. The teacher can become more, ah, efficient in grading, and give each student a bit less, or the teacher can make a heroic effort to comment on each of those 150 papers as thoroughly as s/he would comment on twelve advanced seminar papers, have a physical breakdown in the middle of the semester, and have no energy left for student feedback for the rest of the term. Either way, the students are going to get less attention than they might, although they will almost always get more than the university is actually paying for. (Part-timers often make somewhere between $100 and $150 dollars per student per semester in the most demanding classes.)

The courses in which part-time teachers get spread thinnest, of course, are the building-block courses which are supposed to provide the foundation for later work. It's exactly in the foundational courses that schools try to save money, and teachers' working conditions make it hardest for them to teach effectively.

So these three major problems combine to reinforce each other. Part-time professors are charged with teaching the building blocks for later courses, but they are given insufficient resources to teach those basic skills, are cut off from feedback about how their students do later on in college, and face constant pressure to loosen standards in order to keep their student evaluations high. This is a system designed to produce bad results, no matter how good the individual teachers in the system are. Our current adjunct system is much like hiring a bunch of expert drivers for a fleet of buses with bad transmissions and suspect brakes. You can put great people behind the wheel, but the passengers still won't all get where they should.

Research (and common sense) suggests that most of these problems go away when you convert adjuncts to full-time faculty, even without tenure. You can do fine if part of the faculty are full-time teachers who don't do research, and who take on more of the lower-level courses. But they need to be people with full-time jobs, with a real salary and benefits, working at one college.

If you're working non-tenure track for only one school, and being paid a living wage, you will have a course load that allows you to actually give each student the effort that they need. You will be part of the department's conversation about what students need to learn in which class and how students are doing. (And if you're at the same place every semester for a few years, you'll be able to see how well your old students do.) And you won't be dependent upon your popularity in student evaluations for next semester's rent money; most likely, you'll be able to have teaching observations and feedback from peers and supervisors in your department. You may even be given a chance for ongoing training and professional development. You'll have a chance to be exactly as effective as tenure-track full-timers are, or more, because your working conditions will support your teaching effectiveness instead of undermining it.

That's a good solution, but too expensive for most colleges to actually follow, if by "too expensive" we mean only 20% or 30% cheaper than tenure-line faculty. Full-time salaries and benefits cost money, and the point of hiring adjuncts is to spend as little money as humanly possible, reducing costs to something in the low three figures for every three credit hours a student pays for. Every college and university could effectively assemble a very good pool of steady non-tenure-track teachers who would make something like 80% of what new assistant professors make. But they don't feel able or willing to spend that money. Those are the hard facts.

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