Who’s The Better Teacher?

May 28, 2009

As we long suspected:

“At the most celebrated institutions of higher education in the United States, the teaching quality of the adjuncts is many times better than that of those on the tenure tack.”

Inside Higher Ed didn’t pull any punches in their review of Off-Track Profs: Nontenured Teachers in Higher Education from the MIT Press. The book, just out, reports results on a study funded by the Mellon Foundation that looked at adjuncts teaching at 10 leading research institutions. The authors, university administrators themselves, had seemingly total access to data and personnel.

As important as the finding about ‘quality teaching’ (more on this in a moment), is the study’s analysis of the drivers behind the growth of adjuncts. It isn’t just the cynical need to save money. In fact, the decision to place a course with an adjunct results from many factors. This makes sense, since few university administrators have any sort of cost-cutting philosophy to their leadership. If they did, many aspects of university departments would change before an increased hiring in adjuncts.

As usual, the definition of ‘better teacher’ is based entirely on course evaluations completed by students. Which means the results are worthless. Anti-adjunct (or anti-data) partisans will reject the findings out of hand. And they’d be correct to do so, although the conclusion feels right to us. It would have been interesting to see the authors of the study bounce their data against RateMyProfessors.com data…but that’s another story.

The whole illogical mess is another reflection on the emotional and cultural decision making that drove the financial melt-down. Is the goal to educate students? Or is the goal to bring in research $ and publish obscure texts (the article casually mentions that the course load for “many tenured professors has fallen from four to three a year.” THREE COURSES A YEAR?

Is the goal to sell as many mortgages as possible? Or to make sensible loans that will actually be paid back?

The whole dynamic runs very close to a terrific new piece from Atul Gawande in The New Yorker this week. We’ve blogged about Gawande before; he is taking on the 30,000 foot issues in medicine with an eye for detail and counter intuitive conclusions that are obvious once pointed out. We feel similar work should be (and could be) done in education. Read the rest of this entry »