Professional Development for Adjuncts
Colleges increasingly rely on non-tenure-track instructors for teaching -- especially remedial courses. Some colleges are reporting previously unheard of success in helping students move out of remedial programs into college-level work. Professional development programs to share the latest teaching techniques tend to be designed in ways that effectively exclude part timers, who can't be expected to be on campus at odd hours, without pay, when they need to teach elsewhere to make a living. What's wrong with this picture?
At Valencia Community College, in Florida, officials decided that system made no sense. At a presentation Tuesday at the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development, Valencia officials promoted their approach as a way to provide more support -- and more money -- to those on the front lines of remedial instruction. NISOD, part of the Community College Leadership Program of the University of Texas at Austin, is one of the largest gatherings of community college leaders -- and the Valencia presentation built on the idea, much discussed in sessions at the meeting, of the need to collect data and act accordingly to improve teaching and learning.
While adjuncts at Valencia could not be reached to get their view of the program, many are voting with their feet to participate -- and several faculty development experts at other community colleges who were at the NISOD session said that efforts they had tried that lacked the features of Valencia's efforts had fallen apart, with many adjuncts criticizing them.
Two key features are present in the Valencia program that are lacking in many others: flexibility and pay. The former is important because of adjuncts' schedules. While Valencia has some professional development programs in person, every program is offered in in-person and online formats, so all are available to people on their own schedules. As to the latter, when adjuncts have completed 60 hours of professional development, their pay per credit hour goes up by $33. As a result, the greatest gains go to those who teach multiple courses, as many do at the college. The pay increase is for three years, and can be renewed if the adjuncts complete another 60 hours. Those who finish 60 hours are also given a new title, "associate faculty." (Nellis said that he would like to see the financial incentive at double its current level, but is happy to have what he has, given budget constraints.)
In less than three years, about 20 percent of adjuncts at Valencia have earned that title and the pay increase, and many more are in the process of doing so.
"We depend on part-time teachers," said Patrick A. Nellis, director of faculty development at Valencia. "Faculty development brings them into the culture of the college."
Valencia is a participant in Achieving the Dream, a national program to use data to improve community colleges, and Nellis walked the audience through the data that led to the faculty development program. The college worried about gaps in the educational attainment of its white and minority students. For many students, failing remedial math ends their college careers. While 43 percent of sections at Valencia over all are taught by adjuncts, about 80 percent of remedial math sections are taught by part timers. (In conversations after the session, some in the audience said that the most surprising thing about Valencia's numbers was that 20 percent of remedial math courses are taught by those on the tenure track; at many campuses, all of those sections would go to adjuncts.)
To improve retention, especially of minority students, Nellis said, "the battleground is developmental math." Since Nellis said it would be unreasonable to expect adjuncts to attend sessions on teaching at set hours or without compensation, the system he outlined was developed. Some in the audience expressed doubts about getting administrative support for policies that would increase adjunct pay, but Nellis noted that the Valencia plan creates the greatest incentives to participate and offers the greatest financial rewards to those who teach multiple courses a semester. Finance officials liked that approach, and Nellis said it ended up amounting to more money than the token stipends some colleges give for participation in professional development.
Nellis also noted that the system Valencia created puts pressure on him to produce more modules of professional development. Since the instructors must renew their professional development status, Nellis said it would be wrong to have them take the same courses over again. The offerings cover topics such as teaching diverse students, teaching online, changing the way group work is used (Nellis said that group work is indeed a valuable teaching tool, but ideas are changing on how to use it), as well as subject-specific material on math. The instructors were also surveyed to help develop programs, and were asked, for example, to identify the concepts that were the most difficult to teach in mathematics.
While the program is too young to be able to point to results in student learning, Nellis said that surveys are conducted of adjuncts on whether and how they change their teaching styles after participation. Among the changes reported by many instructors: more attention to the different learning styles of different students, more use of writing assignments to teach mathematics, and more use of attitude surveys to find out what math anxieties or misconceptions students have, so they can be addressed. Nellis said Valencia educators hope some combination of those or other ideas will help more students, and then spread to more instructors.