Higher education policy experts, philanthropists and private foundations have lately rallied around a public agenda for postsecondary institutions to do a better job of educating students. Even our fractious political parties can agree on this, at least, but they rarely agree on how to do it.
Still, it seems that important people are finally realizing that the laurels of America’s postsecondary past are withering on the vine and that second-order change will be necessary if we are to keep up with our industrialized peers. Between the drumbeat from Measuring Up and the chord struck by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift, a theme of what ails higher education is emerging. Joining the chorus are those -- among others with the power or resources to do make a difference -- from Barack Obama to Rick Perry, from the Lumina and Gates Foundations to the governors bringing you Western Governors University.
Their plan goes something like this: We need to produce more college graduates. To do this, we must find more efficient, effective ways of teaching a larger, poorer, more diverse population of students. Then, we need to measure whether what we are doing is actually preparing students for the world and the new economy. Given their capacity and broad access, community and state colleges (and, perhaps, some open and online correlates) will be the locus of reform.
Absent from this equation — and from much of the prescriptive dialogue, in fact — are two of the most important influences on the behavior of the academy: research and the faculty. Since World War II, the academy’s tools of reward and recognition have been pushing faculty individually and universities collectively toward ever more research-intensive activities.
And there lies the incongruity: foundations, policymakers, and executive officers are pushing down a reform agenda that requires faculty at the bottom to be more committed to better teaching, advising, counseling, and assessment. Yet all of the impulses in the academy’s DNA are driving faculty and the institutions they serve away from teaching and into ever more grant-seeking and research activities. Clayton Christensen describes this "up-market drive" as "intoxicating" to those behind the wheel.
Mission creep, as it has come to be known, presents problems for the public agenda. Most advocates agree that the nation’s degree productivity goals must include investment focused on student success, not research aims, with resources directed toward lower-division instruction and student services. After all, per-capita costs are substantially higher at research-active institutions than at their broad-access counterparts “down-market” who are the linchpin of meaningful improvements to degree attainment rates. Furthermore, when research enters the budgetary ring, objective, merit-driven formulae for state and federal appropriations get sucker-punched by campaigning legislators, influential boosters, and college lobbyists.
Attempts to decouple the teaching and research functions of the university — most recently and contentiously at the University of Texas System — are perceived by faculty and administrators as threats to academic freedom, autonomy, and institutions’ best efforts to find new sources of revenue in a period of divestment from public higher education. Some higher education coordinating boards have the teeth to prevent public colleges from drifting into research territory, but with these few (and arguable) exceptions, most top-down policy prescriptions compete with the foxhole realities facing broad access colleges. The rule of this fiscal jungle trumps white paper finger-wagging at these institutions over their pursuit of prestige and treasure.
Though some would blame (and tear down) tenure for the academy’s resistance to change, I see the lever, as Ernest Boyer did 20 years ago, not in tenure per se but in the body of evidence expected in the departmental tenure portfolio. Boyer’s alternative model, which rewards efforts to study and improve teaching models and practices toward better learning outcomes, has not changed the status quo much in the face of the massive funds promised by traditional research structures such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Another factor to consider is that so many of the people who teach in the comprehensive and regional colleges were trained in research universities, whose culture pervades all types of institutions. Without a plan that acknowledges the outsized influence of NIH and NSF and the research-driven culture of the academy, colleges and faculty who see such grant-stuffed carrots within their reach will simply ignore their masters' sticks.
What we need, in fact, are more carrots. By joining this research apparatus, a new organization dedicated to initiating and supporting scholarship in teaching and learning would act not against but on the familiar, basic instincts of colleges and, more importantly, the faculty. Trading on the coin of the realm, this analog to NIH and NSF could put the scientific research of pedagogy into favorable consideration in tenure dossiers. On the basis of a merit-based peer review process, a single “R01” grant from this public foundation — and the recognition that follows the faculty who wins it — will do more to encourage faculty behavior in support of the public agenda than all the exhortations, goals, and policies that those outside of the academy have mustered.
It would take an act of this contentious Congress to create such a "National Pedagogy Foundation," but its mission is politically sustainable. The now-defunct Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) and the NSF’s education directorate offer lawmakers some cover of precedent. Both science research and education have historically enjoyed bipartisan support and have largely weathered federal budget cuts during the recent economic downturn. Congress would empower this new agency to encourage and develop a national policy for the promotion of research in the pedagogical sciences and to evaluate the teaching programs undertaken by other agencies of the federal government. In a constitutional convention attended by experts in education, cognition, human development, technology, philanthropy and change, stakeholders would draft a plan for the organizational structure and activities necessary to take on higher education’s 21st -entury challenges.
Among these activities would be, naturally, a merit-based peer review grant program to fund "basic science" research in education and evidence-based teaching and learning innovations with significant potential for extendable impact. One division might provide seed support for the design, construction, and study of new facilities that use active learning environments, integrate innovative teaching technologies, and accommodate individual differences among students. Perhaps a separate division would develop capacity and expertise in the assessment of student outcomes and the systemic adoption of pedagogical innovations and effective intervention strategies. Another branch would be useful for assisting institutions in the implementation process, lest good research on teaching and learning go ignored. The work of this foundation would be organized with due sensitivity to differences among disciplines, modes of learning, and instructional levels (e.g., remediation, introductory courses, advanced courses).
The benefits of a federal research agency to improve teaching and learning extend beyond incentives for faculty to teach and for colleges to reward teaching:
- This public foundation would put research (and all of its prestige) within the mission of teaching colleges, minus the astronomical capital and maintenance costs associated with science facilities.
- A deep and sustained commitment of federal financing would burnish the reputation not only of pedagogy as a science and a craft (and not just an all-access playground for dilettantes), but also of schools of education, the perennial second-class citizens of the academy.
- In its capacity not just to catalyze but to organize the scholarship of teaching, learning, and assessment, this body will become the national clearinghouse of the best instruments, analyses, and dissemination methods, all toward serving evidence-based policy development at the federal, state, and institutional levels.
- A National Pedagogy Foundation will spur the development of groundbreaking discoveries in educational technologies and cost-efficient processes along with opportunities to foster strategic collaborations with industry through licensing and new venture agreements.
Importantly, a new public foundation for teaching and learning will reclaim the higher education policy territory that state and local governments have ceded to private foundations and philanthropists. As recently described in The New York Times, America’s education policy is heavily influenced by the resources of "policy billionaires" like Bill Gates, Eli and Edythe Broad, and even Mark Zuckerberg. Their interests in transforming education, though well-meaning, are viewed as either "extraordinarily benevolent or extraordinarily undemocratic" in their co-opting of federal, state, or local agendas. In any event, the direction that teaching and learning will take in this country is increasingly set not by our elected officials, but by wealthy citizens and organizations.
Rather than leave these benefactors to their own aims, this agency can engage potential donors through private-public partnerships. After all, where might a gift of $40 million for teaching and learning make the most difference: dropped in Harvard’s bucket (as was recently done by the Hauser family), or matched by federal appropriations and distributed to merit-worthy experiments at 10, 40 or perhaps 400 institutions where students are in greater need of better teaching?
Finally, for inspiration on how to assemble the human and financial resources to begin this endeavor, we should look to the past. On November 17, 1944, Franklin Roosevelt framed what would be the challenge of the postwar era:
"New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life."
These words introduce Vannevar Bush’s Science The Endless Frontier, which set the stage for what would soon become (with some changes to the original) the National Science Foundation, and over six decades of ballooning federal investment in research.
Roosevelt’s words and Bush’s vision provide a blueprint for an apparatus to explore learning, this century’s frontier of the mind. Drafting a new plan is the easy part, but it requires what John Kingdon describes as a "policy entrepreneur," a champion as savvy as Bush was in his time: someone with the ear of the president; with the authority, the influence, or the charisma to convene the right people for a sustained commitment; and with the skill to build support in Congress for a multibillion-dollar program ($7 billion, if we are to match NSF) whose returns might not be realized for years.
Who, then, will get teaching on America’s research agenda? It might be an elder statesman (or stateswoman), a "policy billionaire," or a college president with star power. Whoever it is will have harnessed the intellect and the energy of the people who, ultimately, must do the yeoman’s work of better educating America. By recognizing what really motivates these rational actors, he or she will have the faculty.
Kiernan Mathews is director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.