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Rewarding Teaching
March 13, 2012 - 3:08am

What would it look like if, say, the Federal government were to decide to prioritize good college-level teaching at the same level that it supports university research?

This piece in IHE addressed the question, but it struck me as falling badly short of reality.  

Briefly, the piece suggests that Congress establish a National Pedagogy Foundation as a sort of counterpart to the NEH or the NSF.  By pooling a pile of money into a project to award grant funds to deserving projects that promise to advance quality teaching, it suggests, we’d be much more likely to see tenure committees take teaching as seriously as they take research.  Until then, “internal mission creep” on the ground -- in which each stratum of higher education imitates those higher -- will defeat the best intentions.

The author works at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Encouraging good teaching in the context of a research university is important, and the remedy offered here may have some limited traction in that context.  But outside that context, it misses the point.

Quick quiz: Among community colleges with tenure systems, which counts more: teaching or research?

Teaching.  That has always been true.  And that makes sense, given the mission of the institution.  Grants are lovely, of course, but they aren’t required for tenure, and they wouldn’t make much difference on the ground.  (If the good folks at Harvard would like to investigate what it means to value good teaching, I suggest a field trip to nearby Bunker Hill Community College.)  

Followup quiz: which of the following has more students taking classes: research universities or community colleges?

Community colleges, by a substantial margin.  So if you want to make a measurable difference in the quality of teaching for a broad population, you’d start here.  Harvard can wait.

So let’s say, then, that we wanted the Federal government to help improve the caliber of teaching at community colleges, and even at four-year public state colleges.  What would a National Pedagogy Foundation have to do?

My first thought is to define the mission.  Is the goal to improve actually-existing teaching quickly, or to be transformative over time?  If it’s the former, the only serious answer -- the ONLY serious answer -- is a massive, sustained infusion of operating funds into college budgets.  Not conditional funding, or “seed” funding, or funding with strings: straight-up operational funding.  And it would have to come with “matching” requirements, to keep the states and localities from cheaping out and just using the new money as an excuse to cut their own contributions.

I really can’t emphasize this enough.  Grants require project managers, and come with expiration dates.  Money with expiration dates doesn’t mesh with well with tenure; typically, any faculty hired would be on the cusp of tenure just when the money goes away.  So too much of the money is lost to administrative costs, and that which remains can’t be used for faculty.  But with committed, sustained operating funding, the existing administrative infrastructure will do, and we could actually hire faculty.  

If it’s meant to be transformative, then it needs to be both competitive, substantial, and sustained. (The competition could be based on how plausibly innovative the proposals are, and how scalable they are.  No more boutique programs.)  It needs to be long-term enough that the institution can risk failure of the first version without necessarily losing the funding.  Anything truly transformative will be high-risk; in this fiscal climate, colleges will be risk-averse because they have to be.

In either case, though, the key is that the grants aren’t directed to individual faculty.  They’re directed to institutions, and are under institutional control.  That’s the only way to reach enough faculty and students to actually matter.  Giving Prof. Smith a year off from teaching to expound on what a wonderful teacher he is -- the usual M.O. -- just isn’t a serious answer.  Directing grants to individual faculty recreates the star system.  There may be an argument for a star system in research, but there simply isn’t in teaching.  If you want to improve teaching for enough people to move the needle, you’ll need to move up the average.  That means improving the stars, the average, and even the struggling.  That means scale, and that means institutions.

I’m sure the Harvard Graduate School of Education means well, but honestly, if you’re serious about undergraduate education, you have to look where the undergraduates are.  If anyone from the Feds would like to drop me a line, I’m reachable at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.  But don’t hold some sort of national teacher of the year contest, and don’t look to a few supergeniuses as salvation.  Any serious answer has to work at large scale.  That means working with, through, and on behalf of institutions.  You just have to pick the right institutions. 



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