By P.D. Lesko
“Do teachers matter or are teaching methods more important?” That’s the question posed by AdjunctNation.com writer Melissa Miller in her entry this week. On the AdjunctNation Facebook page, Georgia NeSmith wrote in response to Miller’s piece, “Of course the teacher matters. The good teacher will choose the best methods. The entire study is based on a fraudulent assumption.” Maybe. Maybe not. I just finished reading a “The Failure of American Schools” in the June 2011 The Atlantic by former New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. It was incredibly well-written and well-reasoned and a call for accountability in the K-12 classroom. I closed the magazine and wondered who the Michelle Rhees and Joel Kleins are in higher education. Where are the leaders clamoring for accountability in the college classroom? Isn’t it just as important for our college students to graduate with above-average competency in writing, science, reading a social studies? Klein writes:
Nearly three decades after A Nation at Risk, the groundbreaking report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people,” the gains we have made in improving our schools are negligible—even though we have doubled our spending (in inflation-adjusted dollars) on K–12 public education. On America’s latest exams (the National Assessment of Educational Progress), one-third or fewer of eighth-grade students were proficient in math, science, or reading. Our high-school graduation rate continues to hover just shy of 70 percent, according to a 2010 report by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, and many of those students who do graduate aren’t prepared for college. ACT, the respected national organization that administers college-admissions tests, recently found that 76 percent of our high-school graduates “were not adequately prepared academically for first-year college courses.”
Kleins piece is a sobering read, and even more sobering when you realize that higher education leaders are more concerned with the integration of technology in the classroom, the further expansion of distance education and funding, than with measuring student success. What if continued employment of college faculty were tied to student success as opposed to research and publishing? The change would be seismic. The outcry would be tremendous, probably louder than those within K-12 education community who have, for years, claimed that there is just no way to fairly measure student success. I’m always amazed. These people, some of the most highly educated and intelligent people in our county, somehow can’t seem to figure out how to measure student success and use it in faculty retention decisions.
Calls to eliminate tenure are short-sighted. Don’t get rid of tenure; tie it to student success. When students finish a semester of composition, are their writing skills improved? When they finished a semester of algebra, can they solve equations? We test our students continually during the course of the semester, so why shouldn’t the progress of the students be taken into account when colleges make decisions regarding the retention of faculty? At present, Department Chairs and Deans rely heavily on student evaluations when making decision concerning continued employment of part-time faculty. On the other hand, tenure decisions are rarely, if ever, based on student evaluations. This is because it’s silly to base tenure decisions on course evaluations written by students who are obviously influenced by the grades they earn. Rare is the failing student who has enough insight to take personal responsibility for her/his failure then produce an objective course evaluation.
It’s equally silly to base continued employment of part-time faculty in part or in whole on student evaluations. Frankly, it’s more than silly; it’s lazy and it borders on professional negligence on the part of the institutions that allow its administrators to continue to do it. Just like full-time faculty, part-time faculty have an equal responsibility to their students and to have their performance judged on the basis of at least some objective criteria. Klein points out that education unions have, for years, said that the problems that plague America’s education system can’t be fixed until poverty is eradicated. Klein writes:
The response, often from friends as well as opponents, was that we were unrealistic: complex systems don’t change easily, impatience is immature, and directly challenging the educational establishment is not a winning strategy. “You need to be more collaborative and less controversial,” we were repeatedly admonished.
That’s bad advice. Collaboration is the elixir of the status-quo crowd. Consider one of the most cherished mantras in public education today—“We’ll never fix education until we fix poverty.” This lets the school system off the hook: “We can’t do too much with these poor kids, so don’t blame us (but give us more money).” Sure, money, a stable family, and strong values typically make educating a child easier. But we also now know that, keeping those things constant, we can get dramatically different outcomes with the same kid, based on his or her education.
“Collaboration is the elixir of the status-quo crowd.” Klein has pinpointed why unionization of adjunct faculty hasn’t dramatically improved the working conditions and pay of part-timers within those unions, particularly within unified locals. In April I wrote about Jack Longmate. Longmate refused to collaborate, was persecuted by the members of his union’s Executive Committee, and when he appealed to the president of the National Education Association, of which his union is a Washington State affiliate, was told in a letter:
The National Education Association recognizes state and local affiliates as self-governing units that may decide and enforce the roles and responsibilities of elected leaders. I encourage you to actively pursue procedural and political avenues that remain available to you at either the state or local level.
Of course, it was at the local and state levels that he was being persecuted for having testified (as an individual and not as a representative of his union) to his state’s legislature that a bill backed by his union was not in the best interests of the state’s part-time faculty. Should Jack Longmate have been punished by his union for undermining the legislation?
Another good question.
I want to end with this final good question: If you feel invisible where you teach is there anything you can do about it? Randy Eldridge contributes to our “Adjunct By Choice” blog. He writes:
In the world of part-timers and adjuncts, you must be proactive in getting noticed by those you work with. Not one to be extremely extroverted, I teach Criminal Justice and Criminology after all, not Public Speaking, I took it upon myself to make my presence known. I went out of my way to introduce myself to other staff in the instructor areas and in the hallways. I went to ‘optional’ meetings for adjuncts to meet other staff and faculty. I responded to group emails seeking suggestions or input on various topics.
Yes, it was painful at times.
Randy’s great piece has been shared extensively via social media such as Facebook and Twitter. His previous piece was shared extensively, as well. In that piece, he writes that adjuncts need to be prepared to “pay their dues” in order to land courses and better teaching slots.
AdjunctNation’s writers welcome your comments, suggestions and, of course, questions.