Who’s The Better Teacher?

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.

Gawande visits the US county with the highest Medicare costs in the country and asks, “what is different about this place”? The answers are obvious and challenging at the same time. The opening shot, devastating to anyone who isn’t in medicine, is the immediate realization that no one in leadership positions at the hospitals and health care providers he visits knows how much money is being consumed in their facilities. That is, lowering cost is not on their radar screen. The equivalent would be UPS not bothering to know how many packages were moving through its system on a daily basis. The health care executives don’t know because they don’t care; total cost – at the individual patient level – isn’t a concern.

There are some bright spots – health care systems like the Mayo Clinic where physicians are paid salaries, rather than “incentivized to provide services.” These systems spend less money on people – and the result is a healthier population. There is a lot of data behind this conclusion, but basically the more you visit hospitals and doctors, overall, the sicker you get. If your doctor orders three follow up tests, a ‘minor’ preventative surgery, and puts you on drug your outcome is probably going to be poorer than finding more creative ways to deal with the situation.

Unlike healthcare, educators (at the world’s leading institutions!) are basing decisions on course evaluations. Is this identical to deciding on the effecitveness of a hospital by asking a the (surviving) patients how they feel? Just about. The information is useful, but the data cannot be used to drive decision making.

And as in healthcare, the stakes are the same: education costs America huge sums of money, much of it to ‘incentivize’ pseudo-academics to invent ever more elaborate systems of language and criticism that keeps their obscure world afloat. They are no different than the doctors in Texas that enjoy a particularly entrepreneurial culture, and charge the shit out of the Medicare system to spin up their own revenues.

Unlike healthcare, America as a whole does not need to come to some grand conclusion and force change. Education (especially higher education) is an increasingly market-driven business, and efficient providers are wading in…within 10 years the luster of a non-profit, ‘prestigous’ degree while have completely worn away (a generation of graduates with huge bills and no jobs will accelerate this process even more) and 18 year olds will become smart consumers. Universities, as we know them now, are the equivalent of the ice harvesting companies of the early 20th century; they are worried about course evaluations like the ice harvesters designed more effective insulation to move ice long distances. When refrigeration became possible in the home, new companies took over the entire ‘ice’ market.

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