Quality and politics

As is well known, the California legislature is slashing state support for higher education, forcing us to raise tuition again and again.  One response at Cal has been a consulting project from Bain and Co., called Operational Excellence (perhaps because the words quality and excellence hardly occur in any of their product, which is about saving money and doing almost as much almost as good work).

The project had a big show-and-tell event on campus today, with posters and folks answering questions about this and that initiative.  I came away pretty discouraged, because I think our leadership has got the politics of this wrong and we will keep getting our nose bloodied if we think our problems are all in the administrative zone.  There is low-hanging fruit here. For example, we don’t charge units for their energy consumption so we have no incentive to fix our windows (we have to pay for stuff like that) or even turn the lights off.  But our problems are bigger, and more at the core of our business.

My take – anecdotal at least in part, YMMV – is best characterized by remarks at least one colleague and I have heard more than once from our wonderful public policy minor students: “This is the first course I’ve had at Cal in which  I really had to think/I raised my hand in class!” To hear that from a junior is frankly heartbreaking.  I know my students are strongly socialized to flatter my ego, to try to guess “the answer” I have in my head, and not so much oriented to teaching each other, and it takes some serious effort every semester to get them in a mode where real learning is possible.

I think about one of them going home for Thanksgiving near the end of her first semester with us and being grilled by relatives while they wash up after dinner:

“So tell us all about college! How’s Berkeley!”

“It’s OK, I guess.  I couldn’t get into my two first-choice courses, and the prof in calculus keeps standing in front of the board when he’s writing on it, so we can’t hear him or see what he’s writing.  One of the classrooms doesn’t have a projector, so we spend ten minutes getting one set up at the beginning of every class.  I got a paper back that just had “B+, nice work” written on it; I have no idea how to do better.  Hey, those sweet potatoes were delicious!”

In my nightmare, the uncle Lisa is talking to is the finance chairman of her state rep’s campaign committee, and those little conversations are poisoned arrows in our political heart. I opine that as long as we cannot deliver a great intellectual experience in nearly every meeting of every course (and if not us, who? and if not now, etc.), any savings stuff like Operational Excellence will generate will just be taken from us by the state in further budget cuts.

Why is this happening? I’m pretty sure it’s because of the complete absence of a quality assurance program for teaching that anyone from industry (service or manufacturing) would recognize; I’ve asked where it is again and again, and everyone – including the chair of the Committee on Courses of Instruction – says they don’t know. For research, we have a fairly good QA system with the equivalent of quality circles, collaboration, watching each other work and talking about it, peer feedback, and the other basics.  But for teaching, where our political life hangs by a thread…well, there was a one-off program for about 40 faculty last spring on “how students learn”, and a seminar that twelve faculty a year can join, so if the HSL is repeated, these will reach the whole faculty once per forty years, on average.  On the other hand, one of the first things the chancellor did when money got tight in 2009 was to fire the Vice-Provost for Teaching and Learning and not fill the position.  There is a pretty good  program for graduate student instructors (though very variable across units), so to the degree that a professor can be filled up with teaching chops in grad school and dribble them out across a career, we are building quality in the schools that hire some of our PhDs, and improving learning in our own section meetings.

I sense a great deal of resistance to taking teaching seriously among most of my colleagues (though everyone asserts, on cue, that we care about teaching, and sometimes that we are very good at it).  This resistance has two main sources.  The first is subconscious. As we are mostly all aware that student course evaluations, useful and important as they are, are uncorrelated with learning, and they are all we get, we have never had evidence of a type we respect as scholars that we are any good at it, and we are as insecure about our abilities – especially abilities in a field with a strong affective component – as the next person.  Seriously engaging with improving teaching is just scary; why would I start to play a game I may not be able to get any good at?  One of Deming’s 14 points is “Drive out fear.”

The second is a correct perception that there is a production possibility frontier across teaching and research, and an incorrect perception that we are operating on it and therefore any gain in student learning will be at the cost of research productivity.  There is no reason to believe we are at that frontier, and if we bump up against it at some point, organizational learning and technological advance would push it out so that in a few months we would be inside it again, able to move up on either or both dimensions.

But let’s assume such a constraint, and imagine that we have to increase learning with no additional resources invested in it. Piece of cake, given where we’re starting from.  Here’s one example: break the profound isolation of the teaching profession (only a pathologist in a dark room with his microscope, or maybe a forest ranger in a watchtower, has as little day-to-day peer and partner support as we do).  A typical course around here meets for fourteen weeks, twice a week, in plenary session with the prof.   Let’s imagine two of those weeks, about six hours per semester, redirected from meeting with the students to visiting another prof’s class thrice, briefly writing up three things she’s doing well that (i) I should try to copy in my own course (ii) she should be aware  of as effective practice, be proud of, and keep doing; and three things that would make the class sessions [even] more effective.  I still have 90 minutes left: this might be a lunch meeting to schmoose about what everyone saw in these visits (maybe in groups of four rather than pairs).  After a couple of years of this, given the minimal base of collaboration and mutual coaching we’re starting from – let me emphasize, we never see each other work and never talk about what we do in this area – I guarantee that student learning would increase by way more than the 14% lost from so-called ‘contact hours’. Such a scheme would also generate the peer observation data required by our personnel rules for promotions and merit reviews but never actually provided.  I can tell a parallel story about other elements of the learning enterprise, like critiquing student  work, orchestrating group exercises, setting exams and exercises, and so on.

But that’s not all.  Teaching is intellectually challenging, complicated, and fun to get better at.  Learning is really complex and hard to understand; many things we know about it are not true.   Intellectually challenging, complex, demanding, refuting errors…that’s catnip for this work force!  We would start to learn that the naches provided by actually increasing student learning per hour, per course, and per degree awarded is actually much more rewarding than the ego trip we get from hearing ourselves say the most interesting things we know to a room full of students writing it down so they can try to say it back to us on the final.  We would start having fun and feeling smart and competent; nothing wrong with that.  And Lisa would start sending signals up the chain to Sacramento, and to voters, that would manifest the value of the higher education enterprise to the state in a way that might do us some real good. And do the state some good…talk about win/win/win deals!

Comments

  1. Sean says

    This is all nice by-the-by, but until the state becomes able to raise greater revenue, then the whole discussion as it relates to budgetary issues remains, how can I put it, … academic?

  2. Brett Bellmore says

    Or at least possible to fire administrators.

    The most plausible explanation for the wild tuition inflation the US has suffered for decades, IMO, is the insane growth in administration jobs relative to faculty members who actually teach. How could tuition do anything but go up, as each student supports more and more employees each year?

  3. Barry says

    Brett, please note that in the real world it’s quite possible to fire administrators (unless they’re tenured faculty, in which case one can fire them from their administrative job). It probably doesn’t get done that much, but then again there are a lot of well-protected losers in management in the private sector.

  4. says

    Deming’s 14 points listed here.

    I’m preparing a little paper on Kant for a philosophy discussion group of retirees where I live in Spain. One natural question is why Kant and successors are such terrible writers, while their eighteenth-century precursors are almost universally good ones. The natural explanation is the shift from a salon milieu to a university one. Kant developed his ideas in lectures at 7 am (!) to the sleepy, bored, or uncritically admiring offspring of local Junkers and merchants. Nobody answered back; his nearest peers were 600km away in Halle in Saxony, and he never met them. Rousseau and Hume presented their ideas first in unforgiving circles of their peers, plus idle aristocratic patrons who looked down on the scribblers socially and had no inhibitions about asking the usefully dumb questions.

    A pennyworth. Make a teaching methods course a compulsory part of a PhD programme, and/or a precondition for tenure. Use these students as observers, using a standard methodology. They should observe in areas where their knowledge approximates that of the class, so not in their own academic fields, but somewhat related ones.

    If you allow students to tweet in class, the number of tweets &c can be monitored electronically and serves as an objective indicator of attention-holding, which must be one of the dimensions of effective teaching.

  5. politicalfootball says

    Higher education in California did not get eviscerated because the quality was poor.

  6. Tom H. says

    When I was in academia, we actually did perform teaching observations – a minimum of two observers every semester for untenured faculty – but nothing guaranteed the feedback was perceptive, actionable, or even correct.

  7. Foster Boondoggle says

    Contra Brett, I believe the evidence on tuition cost inflation at private schools points much more towards the “arms race” for attractive amenities than to a surfeit of administrators. And at Cal and other state schools it has everything to do with the plunge in state financing, which, for the UCs, now represents a small fraction of the total budget.

    To Mr. O’Hare’s original point, though, I think most faculty (and I write as a former grad student, the son of a professor and a friend of others) just don’t think of teaching as a major part of their job. Sure, it would be politically better if all the faculty took it more seriously. But for an individual professor it makes next to no difference. Pre-tenure, research is all that matters, period. Post-tenure research is all that matters for promotion and for outside job offers, whether of interest for themselves or just because that’s how you get a raise.

    And a public institution like Cal can be slowly bled by cuts that leave buildings filthy, trash uncollected, non-functioning equipment, etc. — a teacher’s working environment that loudly says “my employer doesn’t care about this”. At UMass years ago I recall a professor compiling a book of photographs of a classroom, paying out of pocket for copies for his students to take home at winter break, showing year-old black splotches where soda had been spilled, overflowing trash bins, broken blackboards (unrepaired vandalism), burned out light fixtures.

    I admire Mr. O’Hare’s goals, but I suspect that he has relatively few peers who will support such efforts.

  8. says

    One of the most thoughtful posts I’ve read on RBC. A couple of comments.

    You get what you pay for/measure/require. Too many institutions, everywhere, not just in Cal, pressure would-be teachers to publish. When teaching is deemphasized, you get…bad teaching. Making matters much worse is that too many professors, especially at research universities and within the higher levels of the tenured, view research and publishing as their real work and view teaching as a burden and time taken from real work. It should of course be the opposite. Others view the classroom as a place to indoctrinate students. The ultimate turnoff for a serious student and downright stealing from a marginal one.

    Your idea about visiting colleague’s classes and learning from each other is excellent, but why take the time from your class? This time should be pulled from your research/writing hours. This would be more consistent with your main theme.

    Finally, we are graduating lots of elementary and secondary school candidates with education degrees where they learn a lot bout teaching methods and conducting a class, but unfortunately, know very little about their subjects. i agree it would help professors to take a course or two along the way about teaching methods. I just wish for a happy medium on the secondary level so that kids would be learning from teachers really knowledgeable about the subject matter, as well as how to teach.

  9. npm says

    Atul Gawande’s recent great article on coaching (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/03/111003fa_fact_gawande?currentPage=all) has a section on teaching. Read the whole thing.

    “…They mentioned the trouble students had with their math conversations, and the girl-boy pair who didn’t talk at all. “How could you help them be more verbal?”

    Critzer was stumped. Everyone was. The table fell silent. Then Harding had an idea. “How about putting key math words on the board for them to use—like ‘factoring,’ ‘perfect square,’ ‘radical’?” she said. “They could even record the math words they used in their discussion.” Critzer liked the suggestion. It was something to try.

    For half an hour, they worked through the fine points of the observation and formulated plans for what she could practice next. Critzer sat at a short end of the table chatting, the coaches at the long end beside her, Harding leaning toward her on an elbow, Hobson fingering his beard. They looked like three colleagues on a lunch break—which, Knight later explained, was part of what made the two coaches effective. …”

  10. says

    Here is an old story that I occasionally recite to interested students.

    When I attained tenure here at Berkeley I was allowed to stay in departmental faculty meetings when they got to discuss/evaluate Assistant Professors. At the first such meeting, they were talking about a particular new person and I had something to add to the discussion: “I have heard from some graduate students that this person is not very good in the classroom. Perhaps some senior member of the department could sit down with him and offer some suggestions on how to be a more effective teacher.” Sitting nearby was one of our great colleagues (later on a Nobel Prize winner) and he said out loud: “Charlie, you are the new boy here; so let me tell you how things work. If someone is good at research, we just assume that they are good at teaching.” That was the end of that discussion.

    When telling this story I add that we, at Berkeley, have somewhat improved out concerns with teaching quality over the past half century.

  11. Michael O'Hare says

    “Somewhat,” I guess. Charlie, I had the same experience less than a decade ago in a faculty meeting about a possible new hire. Someone asked about teaching, one of our senior colleagues said “We don’t hire teachers!” and that was the end of THAT discussion.

  12. NCG says

    On the positive side, one might at the same time try to teach students the value of becoming more assertive. That is, get the students themselves to squeak a lot louder. Present the idea that you don’t have to just accept a grade that’s not explained. You can go to office hours and ask for help. If enough students did this, who knows what might happen? Advocating for oneself is an essential life skill. Students are roadkill without it.

    Of course, the problem is, it’s much more labor-intensive to read and grade papers, yet for me they were the best way to learn. Maybe professors would just assign fewer of them? That would be a shame.

    Another thing is, maybe it’s not the college’s fault if the students aren’t in the thinking habit. Is thinking what’s getting tested on all those Scantron sheets? Did their high school reward it? Or were they just trying to get straight As so they could go to Cal? And now they’re doing the same to go to grad school. Meanwhile, we all know that if you don’t go to grad school, you’re destined to be a pauper and probably will end up homeless. There’s a ton of pressure on these youngsters. We should be doing something about that! There was a good post on this just the other day. I’m not sure our culture values thinking enough. We like inventions, sure, but we don’t want to hear about the “process.” Or the mistakes and the failures and the time you spent daydreaming.

    Or perhaps it may be because the professors are too busy trying to cram in too many facts. (Or is the concept of “too many facts” verboten around here? ; >)

    Another positive thing is that students do learn from each other, too. It’s not all dependent on the professor. I remember in my intro econ section in undergrad, there was this guy who asked the most absolutely brilliant questions. I learned just from hearing them. (He didn’t ask questions in the 200-plus lectures by the name professor. Few did.)

    And how much of a problem is class size? Is the difference that the policy classes are smaller?

  13. DCA says

    There is another point to make about UC teaching. Until recently, the low tuition made any defects in the teaching less important, in the sense that the students were still getting, in a sense, more than they paid for. With present tuition, they, and their parents, will care much more about the quality of what the student is getting.

    In terms of less isolation, perhaps some of the distance learning frenzy could be devoted to building oourses that come from collaborations. Some people are better at lecturing, others at devising interesting challenges–and some, perhaps, at critiquing what (written) work students do.

  14. says

    Michael, there is plenty of peer-reviewed scholarship available about best practices of teaching in every discipline, effective ways of assessing teaching, and so forth, but faculty need to regard this kind of work as part of their scholarly identity. At the same time, institutions (especially departments) have to be prepared to evaluate and distinguish between more and less effective teachers, and to provide resources and high-quality peer feedback to those who wish to learn how to teach better. Getting teachers to learn is exactly as difficult as getting students to learn, but takes place over an entire career: faculty need clearly-stated expectations for their work, access to necessary resources, opportunities to learn and practice new strategies, and so forth. I absolutely agree that shaving off instructional quality at this point in time is a suicidal strategy for public higher education.

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