Saturday, December 20, 2008

The academic caste system in an age of budget cuts

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

At the university, whose work is more valuable--a professor's or an administrative assistant's? In a time of budget cuts, should the professor--who might make vastly more than the administrative assistant--be expected to sacrifice proportionately, or should academics be immune from the slings and arrows of budgetary fortune? These and other issues have been raised these past few weeks during a wide-ranging discussion in the academic blogosphere.

Along with auto makers and financial firms and everyone else, many, if not most, U.S. colleges and universities are hurting. My own institution announced no staff would be getting raises this year, the office of the university president proposed a 23 percent workforce reduction in its own staff of 1,749 and has taken a budget cut of $60 million, and the university system will likely curb enrollments of first-year students.

At many universities, everyone--from Provosts who have been protecting their favorite programs to mailroom staff--has been asked to make sacrifices. Many in the academic blogosphere are saying the distribution of cuts is not exactly fair. Dean Dad summarizes the first part of this conversation, two posts by Tenured Radical and Dr. Crazy:

To oversimplify, TR's position is basically that colleges are communities, and that the members of a community need to share sacrifices in tough times. The idea is that if the community gets a clear sense that the local leadership has a reasonable plan, is sticking to it, is sharing it, is soliciting and listening to input, and isn't pulling any fast ones, then it's fair to include some shared sacrifice in that plan. (Admittedly, that's a long chain of 'ifs,' many of which won't be met in very many cases.) In the case TR outlines, it's reasonable for faculty to accept a pay freeze for a year, given that others are accepting it, too, and that the freeze prevents layoffs. Underlying this perspective, I think, is a nuanced sense of reciprocity as a common obligation. If a single group is singled out for sacrifice, then by all means, resist. But if everybody gives up something, then even a card-carrying lefty could sign on without selling out.

Dr. C's position is less idealistic. She argues that professors are workers, and that workers are entitled to fight for the best deals they can get. She suggests that paeans to 'community' are belied by the weight of her workload, and that given what she already does for her salary, she already (effectively) gave at the office. She seems to suspect that all this 'shared sacrifice' stuff is a sort of surrender by faculty, who are essentially being played for chumps.

Dean Dad puzzles through the difference between being tenured and being unionized, and opines that it's not fair for faculty to be both tenured and unionized. The benefits of tenure--owning a job for your professional lifetime--come in exchange for institutional stewardship responsibilities, which includes institutional sacrifice. Unionization, on the other hand, is more clearly a labor-management situation, where the laborers (Dean Dad refers specifically to adjunct faculty here) can be expected to protect their own self-interest over that of the institution because it's likely the institution has in the past not protected this class of faculty and staff.

Dr. Crazy frames her perspective more in terms of being asked to give more and more--in terms of labor, salary cuts, and cuts to her budget. She writes,

I get really angry when it comes to all of the above. The bottom line is that I work at this place, and every such request that faculty "do their part" makes me feel like my work isn't valued - like I'm not already doing my part by teaching in fucked up classrooms without the equipment that I need, quietly accepting that I have an office with no heat and that's 400 miles away from the printer, teaching four freaking maxed out classes a semester, etc. I feel like people have their hands in my pockets and like they're taking money that is mine and that I earned. And while I get the fact that a university is a special kind of place, blah blah blah, I kind of want to tell everybody that they can fuck off and that I don't make enough on a humanities salary, no matter how giving a heart I possess (and really, I don't possess one of those, but for the sake of argument), to keep a university in the black. Shit, I'm not in the black just in terms of my personal finances. And yet, because of all of the PR surrounding this shit, I feel guilty when I don't give. You know what? Screw it. No more guilt. I'll feel guilty when my student loans are paid off. Until that time, they'll just have to be happy that I do my freaking job.

In another post, she rebuts Dean Dad's implication that tenured faculty should be asked to sacrifice equally across the disciplines and ranks:

Yes, compared with our administrative assistants, or the janitorial staff, I hold a position of privilege. Compared with adjuncts and full-timers not on the tenure track, I hold a position of privilege. But if we compare me to my peers across institutions or even across disciplines within my own institution, I would not characterize my position as one of privilege. I am in a field that bears the brunt of some of the most labor-intensive portions of the general education curriculum; I am in field that has historically been one of the lowest paid; I am in a field where job mobility is about zero once one hits the associate level, and where it's not much better even at the assistant level for all but lateral moves; I am at the lowest funded university in my state, a state with notorious budget problems, and that disparity will likely not be rectified in my lifetime; at the same time, my university's enrollment is rapidly growing and there is an expectation that it will continue to grow by leaps and bounds even without adequate state support for that growth.... I could go on, but I think the gist of what I'm saying here is clear. My job, although I really do enjoy it most days and while I am pleased to be working in the field in which I trained, is not a plum gig.

Amen. I was recently in a meeting on the status of women on my campus, and one of the scientists expressed the belief that it's possible to undertake humanities scholarship and teaching without a budget, whereas her research required real money. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, and it chaps my hide when scientists brush off the costs of my research--for which I travel enough to sometimes need temporary housing instead of just a motel room--as incidental. Humanities folks do draw the short straw, in terms of budget and prestige, at many large research institutions.

That said, Tenured Radical reminds us that tenure-track faculty (yes, even in the humanities) have plenty to be grateful for. She provides an excellent list of questions about faculty privilege during tough budgetary times, and concludes with this reflection:

The strangest thing I have heard -- and I have heard it from more than one person -- is the narrative of sacrifice, in which a faculty member claims to have chosen university teaching when other, far more lucrative work was possible, but in an act of self-abnegation chose to teach the unwashed masses who seem to cluster regularly at private colleges and universities. Having made this sacrifice, the story goes, no others should be required: nay, this person should receive raises while others near and far, working class and middle class people working in soulless occupations, lose their jobs.

While it is not required of us to be grateful for having jobs as unemployment gallops to new highs, it is worth remembering that life isn't fair. When we are not being rewarded with cash prizes for our accomplishments, it might be a good time to figure out if there are personal rewards other than money that cause you to stay committed to teaching and the production of knowledge. If there are not, I strongly suggest you use the safety of your tenured position to explore another line of work that would make you happy.

If not, my advice is this. Gratitude for your job security isn't required, but it might be seemly. And since this doesn't seem to be widely known, let me just say: being a university teacher is not the moral equivalent of being a priest, a social worker, a member of the Peace Corps, a safe-sex worker or a community activist, in which you have traded affluence to serve others. If you think that is the entire reason why you chose to teach and write you are, frankly, delusional, and suffer from profound status anxiety.

Historiann points out that it's not fair to only ask teaching faculty to make cuts, and she provides an excellent illustration of the ways that faculty spend money throughout the day and year:

Can you feel the excellence, my darlings? Let's see if the copier company will be happy to to fix our copier--for no money! How about serving up lunch in the student center to us--for no money! Maybe Shell Oil will donate gasoline for staff and faculty vehicles so that we can get to campus--for no money! I wonder if banks and landlords will forgive mortgages and rents for everyone employed in higher education, so that we can house ourselves for no money! This no money thing could work, just so long as it's not just people in higher education who are doing it for no money!

In a comment on another post by Historiann, Ann Bartow provides a list of the dozen ways she as a faculty member is asked to donate monetarily to the university community. "The requests are relentless and sometimes obnoxious," she writes, "and no one seems to care how many different times we get asked for money."

Geeky Mom comes at the issue of faculty-staff equity from the perspective of someone who has been both adjunct faculty and full-time staff:

On the staff side, when things get tough, the situation is even grimmer (and perhaps this applies to contingent faculty as well, but my experence is the order of layoffs is staff, part-time contingent faculty, full-time contingent faculty). Dr. Crazy acknowledges that she's in a position of privilege as a faculty member. The janitor, whose job gets outsourced, not so much. As Dr. Crazy said, someone earlier in their career hurts more when the raise doesn't come. For many staff, the lack of a raise is the difference between being able to commute to work or not or between paying the heating bill or not. Most staff (and I'm guessing faculty too) have seen their real incomes decline over the years. I experienced a downturn in my first 6 months on the job. I got no raise the first year and only a paltry one the second. The 3 years after that were fine, but still, overall, I saw my salary decline. Add into that that faculty have the opportunity for merit raises--a sizable one when getting promoted to associate or full and yearly ones based on teaching, research and service accomplishments--while staff do not and you end up with some real inequalities that cause some serious pain during hard economic times.

I'm not putting forth this information to say to faculty, you don't know how good you have it, but to say that I think staff, too, should not take on more sacrifice. Too many of them do. They look at themselves as part of a family or team or whatever and put in extra hours without pay or offer to donate to the college(!) or suck it up when they go without raises for a couple of years.

Amen again. I, too, have served--continue to serve--as both adjunct faculty and staff, and in my experience neither category of employment gets the respect it deserves from the university. Whether it means teaching the classes that tenure-track faculty either don't want to teach or (let's be honest) don't have the instructional chops to teach well (such as courses with very large enrollments), assisting students with finding options to study abroad, or tracking grants for faculty, adjuncts and staff tend to be the first to suffer from budget and staff cuts.

Roxie wonders why there hasn't been a bailout proposed for the nation's educational institutions:

Folks, we're real sorry to hear that the bailout for the auto industry has apparently fallen apart, but have you noticed that no one is even talking about a bailout for higher education? For years, public institutions like Queer the Turtle U have been stuck between the rock and the hard place of declining levels of state support and mounting pressure to keep tuition affordable. Caught in that vise, schools have fought to do more with less while scrambling to catch up to private institutions in the game of fundraising. That strategy worked reasonably well when times were good and the bubbles in stocks or real estate had a lot people feeling rich. Now? The party's over, public and private revenues have dried up, and schools are desperately trying to figure out how to cut costs without compromising the value of their brand (the ne plus ultra of higher ed under the consumer model).

An excellent question. After all, universities make serious contributions to local, state, and national economies that can be measured in a variety of ways, and they provide as well less tangible benefits such as reduced crime rates in many communities near universities, improved health of individuals in that community, and increased civic engagement.

Be sure to check out all the posts I linked to here, as there is some terrific discussion going on in the comments.

What are your thoughts? Would you support a bailout package for failing institutions of higher education? And do you think the public would look differently at "state-funded" universities if they knew how small a percentage of the overall budget of some of these universities actually comes from the state rather than from private sources?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

How can we predict K-12 teacher effectiveness?

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

In the U.S., public educational systems select teacher candidates based on test scores, credentials, and university degrees. But those, says Malcolm Gladwell in a recent New Yorker article, are not good predictors of teacher success. In fact, he writes, there may be no good predictors at all.

Gladwell frames his argument with stories about how two other industries, the National Football League and elite financial advising companies, recruit their professionals. He points out that there may be absolutely no way to tell if a college quarterback will succeed in the NFL--short of letting him play quarterback for an NFL team--because playing college ball barely resembles playing for the NFL. Only time in the league will demonstrate whether a quarterback will succeed.

Gladwell argues that selecting teachers is similarly difficult, that there appears to be little connection between formal teacher preparation regimes (e.g. teaching credential programs, Master's of Education degrees) and the ability to reach all learners in a classroom.

Gladwell says one solution is to change the way teachers are recruited, and he recommends a model embraced by financial advising firm North Star Resource Group. For every thousand people recruiters from North Star interview, they find fewer than 50 they think might succeed. These semifinalists attend a four-month, intensive training camp. Fewer than half of those who were invited to the training camp were then hired as apprentice advisers. Three to four years later, North Star retains 30 to 40 percent of those hired as apprentices.

This model goes against the typical teacher recruitment proceedings, which require little beyond a college degree, a teaching credential, and a passing score on one or more state-mandated teacher certification tests. As Dave Saba points out, "most state teacher tests have pass rates over 95%" and schools of education don't exactly have the reputation of being the most rigorous of our nation's professional training grounds. And Will Wilkinson is wondering why teachers even need college degrees.

Gladwell writes that there is a characteristic that the best teachers demonstrate, what he terms "withitness": the ability to understand and respond to classroom dynamics while still promoting a learning agenda. Teachers who have "withitness" know almost intuitively, in Gladwell's examples, when to let young kids squirm (because it may actually be a marker of learning) and how to shut down student-generated distractions before they snowball and affect the entire class.

The education blogosphere has been broad and mostly supportive of Gladwell's analysis, although there are a few points with which some bloggers take umbrage. For example, Laura Vanderkam presents some interesting data on teachers and standardized tests:

other things being equal, a teacher who scores a 700 on the SAT math section is going to be a more effective teacher than one who scores a 500. The higher score tends to indicate that the teacher is better able to figure things out quickly. This ability to solve problems quickly is a key component of the "withitness" that Gladwell notes is a common attribute with good teachers.

Christopher Sessums wonders how we would fund Gladwell's model of teacher selection:

While I have regularly enjoyed Gladwell's contributions, he seems to gloss over the overall costs associated with his plan. Training all comers will cost more money than the system has. Even if we switched to an apprentice-based pay scale (i.e., paying apprentices a smaller salary while compensating top-tier educators appropriately), finding the money to do so will more than likely outstrip our current salary systems. This is not to say such systems could not be constructed. Instead, I am suggesting further studies need to be considered before we can realistically consider such a move.

Greg Anrig has similar concerns, and offers an alternative model of teacher training:

[T]here are only a few dozen professional quarterbacking jobs in contrast to some 7 million public school teachers, with significant shortages in many cities and subjects. Whatever your position on the appropriate credentialing of teachers, most urban school administrators don't have the luxury of selecting 25 percent of applicants after some sort of closely monitored trial period.

Much more germane to the teaching profession is developing a far more effective, teamwork approach so that instead of relying entirely on the talents of individual teachers to instruct their students in isolation, they can learn from each other on an ongoing basis how to better connect with their students.

J M Holland highlights the differences in salary incentives between football and education. In football, players tend to get paid better when they perform well; the same isn't true for teachers in public schools:

Teaching isn't hierarchical in its demands and schools are not organized so that the same type of practice is needed to be successful in each. The truth of the situation is that in some schools you can teach like a high school quarterback and be fine and in others you have to teach like professional quarterback to be successful. The real difference is that you get paid better in professional football if you are successful whereas in teaching the high school quarterbacks and the professional quarterbacks all get paid the same.

The History Enthusiast believes teachers need to have more than, in Gladwell's words, "a pulse and a college degree":

I did, however, take issue with one statement in particular: "They [reports, new evidence, etc.] suggest that we shouldn’t be raising standards. We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don’t track with what we care about. Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before."

My problem with this is really with the implication here (and elsewhere) that "book smarts" don't really matter in this equation. Now, I'm not saying that every person with book smarts is automatically a good teacher. I'm simply saying that when you consider subjects taught in high school, for instance, teachers should be expected to be book smart. That seems fair to me.

For instance, I have a few education majors in my courses (which fulfills a requirement) who are barely passing. They do not understand basic historical facts. They write at a very basic level with significant grammatical problems. They may end up becoming fabulous teachers who've mastered all the pertinent pedagogical techniques and who can really relate to students. I don't know. But, shouldn't they also be expected to really understand their subject matter? If they are relatively uninformed when it comes to basic historical concepts, shouldn't we find that troublesome? And more importantly, shouldn't ALL teachers be able to write well (i.e. coherently and without noticeable errors)?

Eduwonkette takes Gladwell to task for not looking at the larger contexts in which teachers learn their trade and children learn about the world:

It was surprising to see Gladwell focus so heavily on the potential of the individual player or teacher, given that he just penned a book about the importance of social contexts and chance in producing human greatness. As he put it, "The tallest oak in the forest is the tallest not just because it grew from the hardiest acorn; it is the tallest also because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling, and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured."

So where's the "forest" for a quarterback or teacher? It's a team. Or a school. Even the most gifted quarterbacks end up with pretty crappy pass completion stats if their teammates consistently miss the ball. And a great quarterback doesn't look so great if he's a poor fit for the team he's playing with. The same goes for teachers. So my fingers are crossed that the Gladwell who recognizes the importance of the environments - not just individuals - wins this match.

My primary problem with the Gladwell article is that he uses standardized test scores as the measure of the "value added" by the teacher. He says, for example, that teacher quality can be objectively measured by the class's aggregated improvement on standardized test scores during the year. Therefore, a teacher who pushes her students to perform at the seventieth instead of the fiftieth percentile on a national standardized test is a better teacher than one who only advances his students ten percentile points.

Both as someone who is a lousy test taker and as an instructor now seeing the effects on college students of the high-stakes testing regimen ushered in by No Child Left Behind, I take issue with the use of standardized tests as measures of learning. Increasingly, teachers "teach to the test," and the result is a focus on content absorption and regurgitation rather than on developing the skills people need to succeed in college and in life: interpretation, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, to name a few. If standardized tests consistently measured students' ability in these skill sets, then I might find them to be better measures of teacher effectiveness.

Want to learn more? Check out Addofio's thoughtful overview of teacher effectiveness research.

What are your thoughts on teacher effectiveness?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Prop 8: The Musical

Chances are you'll recognize many actors in this performance:

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

(h/t Professor Kim)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


Amen. That's all I have to say about this commentary by Campbell Brown on Ed Rendell's comments about Janet Napolitano's fitness for her new job as secretary of homeland security.

Video not working? You can also view it on CNN's website.

(h/t to Erin Kotecki Vest)