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How The University Works » “quality” and other fighting words http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress Mon, 21 Nov 2011 00:40:41 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.13 Don’t Follow Leaders: Why Faculty Like Me Support Unions http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/283 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/283#comments Wed, 23 Mar 2011 19:14:39 +0000 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/283 Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
–Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues

On March 22, a prominent group of education bloggers agreed to provide statements loosely organized on the theme of “why faculty like me support unions.” Unexpectedly Stanley Fish, a career-long opponent of faculty unionism, joined them. “I recently flipped,” he confessed,”and what flipped me, pure and simple, was Wisconsin.” In particular, it turns out, it was reading new Brainstorm colleague Naomi Schaefer’s Riley’s assault on faculty bargaining rights in that newspaper you find under your door in cheap motel rooms:

What Riley fears is that if colleges and universities were unionized, teachers with far out, discomforting ideas couldn’t be fired. It’s hard to imagine a better argument for unions (and also for tenure)…. Riley makes no bones about it. Letting the unions get a foothold “could . . . make the environment more left leaning.” The message is clear: keep those unions out so that we can more easily get rid of the lefties.

There are layers of irony in Fish’s conversion on the road to Damascus, but it’s hard to argue with his reasoning: one of the lessons of Wisconsin is that academic unionism is one of the few effective bulwarks against ideological cleansing.

Framed as a dialogue between Walter Benn Michaels and himself, the piece is particularly worth reading for Michaels’ withering replies to Riley’s psychic channeling of Ayn Rand. After circulating the usual unfounded canard of faculty laziness, Riley quotes the chief executive of SUNY Buffalo comparing unionization to “belonging to a herd.” In reply, Michaels observes that his own department is amidst a union card drive and ranked in the top 20 nationally:

It’s the hard-working ones who want the union most. Why? Because we think that the people who actually do the teaching and the research should have more of a say in how the teaching and the research gets done. [S]ince when does having a voice in what happens in your own workplace count as belonging to the herd? The president of Buffalo, despite the fact that Buffalo is itself unionized, apparently thinks that rugged individualism consists in shutting up and doing what management tells you to do.

As you’d expect from someone who describes his view as the product of a “flip,” Fish’s contributions to the dialogue lack nuance and context: it’s hard to imagine that Fish has suddenly discovered that most faculty are a lunch bucket crowd, some of whom qualified for food stamps on the wages he paid them while whacking down a monster salary as dean.

In Fish world, faculty unions used to wear a black hat; now they wear a white one, and his realization came about because of what he saw on tv: a dastardly governor twirling his mustaches and tieing a virginal faculty to the railroad tracks. Only the white-hatted union can save the innocent now!

The reality, as anyone who has actually spent any time in the academic labor movement can tell you, is very different: faculty unions have many flaws–and nearly all of them are the flaws of the membership themselves.

The lessons of Wisconsin and Ohio, at least in part, underscore just how seriously faculty and their unions have blundered–how we as a profession have been selfish, foolish, mean-spirited and short-sighted. All the ways, in short, that we haven’t been any better than Stanley Fish but rather, quite a bit like him, or at least striving to be like him, cheerfully shooting hoops and piloting his Jag down the freeway while the academy burned.

Our Unions Are Not Heroic (Because We Aren’t)

So why do I support faculty unions despite their many imperfections? You could say that I’m a critical supporter of American unions generally: they reflect our virtues–too often expressed at the eleventh hour–as well as our flaws. Our unions are often the final barrier against unsafe roads and hospitals, ersatz education and filth in our food. Unions represent all of us, not just those who pay dues into them. A democratic society cannot exist without vigorous democracy in the workplace.

On the other hand, union memberships have failed to live up to their own ideals for most of my adult life–thirty years now. Faced with the difficult challenges of a politically reactionary era–such as hostile regulation, outsourcing, forced volunteerism, and perma-temping–union memberships in every walk of American life have taken the path of least resistance, securing the benefits of older workers and selling out the young.

The members of education unions have been no exception. Faculty represented by the big education unions have turned a blind eye to the hyper-exploitation of student labor, the conversion of jobs to part-time and volunteer positions, the outsourcing of staff and the hostile regulation environment governing collective bargaining in private schools.

But blaming “unions” for the failings of their membership is like blaming the hammer for smashing your thumb. It’s not the hammer’s fault if it’s idle while you’re sitting in front of your television instead of helping mend your neighbor’s fence.

I support unionism the way a carpenter supports tool use. Unions can be misused or neglected by their members, but they’re indispensable to the job of democratizing and diversifying our workplaces, maintaining professional integrity and autonomy, and sustaining high standards in teaching and research.

The current crises in Wisconsin and Ohio have many lessons for faculty in higher education and their unions. I’ll just put forward five for now:

1. Tenure must unite the faculty, not divide it. The single most corrosive faculty myth to emerge since 1970 is the ludicrous notion that tenure is a merit badge for faculty with research-intensive appointments. The biggest reason higher education unions are powerless is that we’ve allowed administrations to cast the overwhelming majority of faculty on teaching-intensive appointments out of the tenure system: “Oh, they’re not real professors, they teach in a less prestigious university/just undergraduates/in the lower division/community colleges.”

Compare this pathetic, near-total collapse of professional identity, much less of solidarity, to the response of police and fire unions in Wisconsin, who defied the governor to support other public employees not even in their own professions–even when he exempted their unions from the axe.

2. Maximize the movement, not the revenue. Organizing graduate students and nontenurable educators would have made perfect sense in terms of sustaining a labor movement in education. But education union staff operating unapologetically under “revenue maximizing” principles have been slow to invest in the movement’s future, scoffing at the paltry “return on investment” of organizing folks already so poorly paid. (Which explains the inroads made by UAW, AFSCME, and SEIU among the nontenurable.)

Ditto for private schools affected by Yeshiva: the big unions have made a few challenges to this decision–all in all, a weak and sleazy piece of judicial activism that only passed 5-4 because of swing voter Stevens, who apparently hadn’t yet had enough of what he later called “on the job training.”

Today, Ohio public-campus faculty are facing Senate Bill 5, a bitter plateful of the fruit of the major unions’ failure to confront Yeshiva. Having shrugged off the decision when it applied only to private campuses, the unions are in a far weaker position to contest the application of its principles to public faculty in any U.S. state–ginning up already not just in Ohio and Wisconsin, but Alaska, Florida, and beyond.

Things could have been very different. Addressing the hostile regulation environment of private campuses is similar to the situation of organizing in right-to-work states: it would have required much more effort and involved much smaller economic returns, but it would have paid off in solidarity, sustaining a broad-based union culture in the academy, which in turn could have led to a legislative solution… which would have prevented the present specter, of a domino effect, with “monkey see, monkey do” application in one state legislature after another.

3. “It’s a great job if you can afford it” and “I don’t do it for the money” are racist, sexist sentiments. I’ve written about this many times before. Even in Wisconsin and Ohio, the police unions are more diverse than the faculty unions–because the extreme wage discount unfairly segments the academic workforce by race, class and gender. Only a small number of persons, disproportionately white, can afford the extreme economic irrationality of most forms of higher education teaching appointments. Defending irrational compensation schemes on the grounds that persons who start out on third base economically are “doing what they love” is really defending a system that denies everyone else a fair shot at doing something they love. The struggle to make academic compensation fair is a struggle to enormously enlarge the academic talent pool: way too many black and brown intellectuals are working at the DMV, fighting wars, and walking a beat instead of teaching at the state university. Too many teaching positions are filled by persons who can afford to work for the status compensation of saying “I work at the U.,” rather than the most qualified.

Every time someone with wealth, parental or spousal backing, and/or high household income brays about how they’d do the job for free, they put another brick in the wall in front of those who don’t have those advantages.

4. There is no democracy without active, embodied participation. Emma Goldman shocked the feminists of her day by saying that they shouldn’t prioritize winning the vote, that voting can provide the satisfying feeling of political participation without the substance. The struggle in Wisconsin has made clear to faculty that our politics can never be just teaching and writing, but has to be made real with boots on the ground and bodies in the street. If every professor’s coffee-shop oration and blog comment were instead a knock on the door in the effort to recall the power-grabbing state senators, the battle would already be won.

5. Leadership comes from below. It’s hardly accidental that Walter Benn Michaels’ grad students unionized a decade before he did. The cutting edge of education unionism always has been, and remains, the working-class intellectualism of ordinary schoolteachers and parents. In the far less accomplished sector of higher ed, the best thinking can often be found among graduate students and nontenurable faculty, who represent nearly eighty percent of the teaching force.

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A Liberal Republican Can Win in 2012 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/277 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/277#comments Thu, 09 Dec 2010 19:46:23 +0000 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/277 Patrick J. Sullivan: “The people who control our schools … don’t send their own kids to these schools. They have one idea of education for our kids and an entirely different one for their own. The core principle of the Bloomberg administration … is condescension: … one idea for their children and a different idea … for everybody else.”

Nelson Rockefeller, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon. What would it take for the Republicans to send Obama home in 2012? The Republican party can steal Obama’s second term if party leadership has the nerve to put forward a liberal Republican willing to make and keep a single promise: No more than twelve students per class, in every public institution from kindergarten to graduate school.

We’ll invest in education until our public institutions have student-faculty ratios that exceed those of the boarding school that incoming New York City Schools Chancellor Cathie Black chose for her own kids.

The slogan “12 in 2012″ isn’t a one-stop fix for all that ails education. However as a game-changing simple promise, it could be a long-overdue intervention in a conversation that’s gone down a rat-hole of dishonesty and propaganda.

It’s a jobs creation bill. It transcends ethnicity, religion, and class. It targets Obama at his Achilles’ heel, delivering the largest bipartisan constituency in the country: educators, students, and parents.

Here’s your litmus test: Upper East Side parent Patrick J. Sullivan, active in Class Size Matters and NYC Public School Parents, who serves on the powerless New York City Panel for Education Policy (8 of the 13 members are directly appointed by the Mayor).

IMHO, any Republican that can honestly answer and satisfy Sullivan’s outrage below can steal Obama’s second term:

“I represent the borough of Manhattan on what the mayor calls the Panel for Educational Policy but what is in the law the Board of Education of the City of New York. I see here today parents and their elected leaders and I see teachers from every borough. I see them from every race and I see them from every income level and from every political party. Why is that?

“Because I’ve learned from talking to people is that every parent wants to the same thing for their kids: they want a rich curriculum, they want an experienced teacher, they want small classes, and they want room for their kids in their schools.

“But what have I learned from sitting on the Board of Educaiton for three years? I’ve learned that instead of schools, we’re going to build a billion dollar police academy. Instead of a rich curriculum, we get test prep and drilling in math and ELA. Instead of small classes, we get our kids packed 28, 30, 35, 40 in a class and that’s wrong.

“But the worst of all this is the people who control our schools, the people who run our schools, the Mayor, the Chancellor, the Regents, they don’t send their own kids to these schools. They have one idea of education for our kids and and an entirely different one for their own.

“Beyond autonomy, beyond accountability, beyond privatization, the core principle of the Bloomberg administration when it comes to education is condescension: the idea that there’s one idea of education for their children and a totally different idea of education for everybody else’s, and that’s what has to stop.”

Transcript: NYC Public School Parents
Hat tip: Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier

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Parent Revolution, Incorporated http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/276 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/276#comments Wed, 08 Dec 2010 21:30:56 +0000 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/276 You’ve probably been watching or reading about a remarkable event here in California–a group of parents at Compton’s McKinley Elementary using the nation’s first “trigger law” to transfer management of the school. It’s an important story, raising interesting questions about a potentially useful law that is already being imitated across the country.

The problem is that you are getting the for-profit and charter school industry’s script–word for word–by most major news outlets, print and broadcast. Here’s some of the story you didn’t get:

+ The Compton parents didn’t rise up on their own; they were among half a dozen communities targeted for door-to-door sales campaigning by Parent Revolution, an “Astroturf organization” (ie, fake grassroots) spun off by Green Dot, a charter group managing fifteen Los Angeles schools.

+ As calculated by Caroline Grannan: by Parent Revolution’s own standards, all but one of Green Dot’s schools are failing, and on average have a California Academic Performance Index of 632, well below the 670 average of the schools that Parent Revolution has targeted for “trigger law” applications.

+ The school will now be taken over by Celerity, a four-school charter operation infamous for firing two teachers who included “A Wreath for Emmett Till” in their 2007 seventh-grade Black History Month celebration.

+In response to the firings, Celerity director Vielka McFarlane said “We don’t want to focus on how the history of the country has been checkered, but on how do we dress for success, walk proud and celebrate all the accomplishments we’ve made.”

+The California trigger law was written and proposed by the fake parent organization, a point well understood by state legislators. It passed by one vote, largely because of the ratchet on already-beyond-critical budget pressure imposed by Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top competition.

None of the major reports (Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, ABC, even the California NPR affiliates) even mention the connection between Green Dot and Parent Revolution, much less explore the dubious record of charter schools generally or the even more unimpressive record of Green Dot in particular. Most quote Vielka McFarlane, but none critically examine the pedagogy, record, or curriculum of Celerity schools. None point out that one of the quirks of the California trigger law is that the parents’ options for new school management are laid out in four fairly rigid tracks, meaning that choosing to explore the charter track doesn’t initiate an open competition. Only the Los Angeles paper noted the imposition of Celerity without competition, and none of the major accounts pointed out that in recent large-scale open competition with teacher-run charter applications, the teacher-led charters won overwhelmingly.

Lame? Sure. But sadly par for the corporate media.

How Should We Respond?

In a word: thoughtfully. I think if written and used properly, versions of trigger laws can actually be used to facilitate democratic change from below, especially when parents and teachers work together. Similar to the heartening example of the overwhelming victory of teacher-led schools in the large-scale charter competition, I have tremendous faith in the radically-democratic partnership of teachers, parents and students.

I agree that the California law is flawed, and that some parents will be manipulated by the powerful alliance of politicians, corporate media and charter/for-profit management companies.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of potential good to forcing educator trade unions to get out there and organize their communities against the bad ideas of the powerful forces arrayed against the best interests of their kids.

Yesterday, today and tomorrow: Teachers who talk to parents generally find that parents get it; parents support teachers and teaching for the whole person, not the test-prep-and-dress-for-success pap of Duncan, Rhee, and the corporate-managed charters.

There’s a real parent revolution out there, California teachers–just waiting for you to organize it.

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Fix Non-Profit Higher Ed First http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/270 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/270#comments Mon, 11 Oct 2010 18:45:31 +0000 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/270 Jesus asked his followers to address the whacking huge piece of lumber in their own eyes before performing optical surgery on others. And I can’t think of a better case study of His wisdom than good old U.S. higher education, where the 5,000 nonprofits–many of them pushing what they perceive as Christian values–are engaging in high hypocrisy about for-profit education vendors.

Sure, the for-profits are just as bad as they say. They fail to graduate students and the students they graduate are often un-, under- and mis- educated. The students go into debt to pay outrageous tuition for the attention of under-qualified faculty, and then fail to find the employment for which they were putatively prepared. And from all of this under-regulated misery and failure, the shareholders are racking up massive capital accumulation.

The problem is that the for-profits did not invent any of this. All of these tactics–what I’ve called the tuition gold rush–were pioneered by the nonprofit sector.

1) We nonprofits have been teaching students with  underqualified faculty, graduate students, and even undergraduates for the past forty years (all while braying inanely about an “oversupply” of persons with doctorates).

2) We charge outrageous tuition for degrees which will not lead to employment, while putting students to work at super-exploitative wage discounts.

3) By overcharging students and underpaying faculty,  we have been accumulating capital–not in shareholders’ pockets, but capital nonetheless, in buildings and grounds, endowments, in tech infrastructure. We also spend down a lot of the dollars that an enterprise institution captures as profit and sends along to its shareholders. Sometimes those dollars are spent on valid public non-education goods. Just as often, though, they’re blown by the million on administrator initiatives like big-time sports, social engineering, business ventures, and the pet projects of influential campus or community actors.

The reason our administrator-dominated accreditation system couldn’t hold for-profits accountable between 1990 and the present is because between 1970 and 1990 it allowed the wholesale substitution of students and m.a. holders (willing to work for status and peanuts) for a largely tenurable workforce with terminal degrees as the preferred qualification.  As I’ve been saying since the early 1990s: if one or two big education states restored the 1970 percentage of tenure-stream faculty with doctorates in teaching-intensive positions, there’d be a vast, sucking undersupply of persons with doctorates in many fields.

I agree, by the way, that a Ph.D. by itself is far from an ironclad guarantee that any individual is an effective teacher, researcher, or campus citizen.  As we began to misconstrue tenure as a merit badge for research faculty the system of doctoral preparation grew increasingly flawed as a preparation for teaching-intensive faculty positions. But in fields where terminal-degree programs exist, they remain the right intervention point.  Where employers at teaching-intensive institutions hire better-prepared faculty into teaching-intensive positions, programs have quickly begun to compete with each other to prepare faculty who are excellent teachers.

While employing more persons with doctorates is desirable, the point is to put them through the rigorous seven-year peer assessment of the tenure system. One of the biggest failures of the accreditation system is that it has permitted the development of slapdash, hare-brained systems of hiring and evaluation by administrators. Despite propaganda to the contrary, the toughest standards for faculty evaluation–by far–are still embodied in the arduous, long-term peer scrutiny of the tenure system.

Across the country, management-dominated hiring and evaluation of the majority of faculty and student instructors is capricious, ill-informed, and aimed at hiring the cheapest and most docile faculty, not the best. Fixing higher ed will inevitably mean either reinstating the rigors of peer assessment (the tenure system) or finding a credible substitute–which, so far, 40 years of management innovation has failed to provide.

You actually want to fix higher ed and stimulate the economy? It’s not rocket science.

1) Make tuition free at public institutions. Heck, go further and provide stipends for housing and expenses. Raise taxes on the Real Housewives class to pay for it.  Hold mainstream journalists, mass-media outlets and politicians accountable for honesty on education issues. Likewise, encourage higher-ed unions and professional associations to learn something from smart, militant schoolteacher unions in the US and abroad.

2) Raise standards for the qualifications, training, and continuing professional development of all faculty.  Many great researchers need incentives to learn to teach better. Great teachers should have opportunities and incentives for earning terminal degrees and remaining current. This doesn’t mean their job descriptions should be changed: the difference between  a bad teaching-only appointments and a pedagogically appropriate teaching-intensive appointment is support for professional currency.

3) Put more people with doctorates in teaching-intensive tenure-track positions and prepare them better for teaching.  Which for most would mean less teaching in graduate school but with far more training and supervision.

4) Remove undergraduate students from work-study positions unrelated to their course of study, and hire adult workers in their place.

5) Place limits on student labor outside of the education workforce, and provide incentives for the employers of “workers who study” to reduce their workload while engaged in learning.

The panic about for-profit practices has a basis in reality, but it’s a hypocritical and propagandistic misconstruction of history to claim that “they” influenced the nonprofit sector to adopt ruthless, shallow, exploitative practices–whether it’s passing off first-year grad students as teachers or promoting what Jeff Williams has reasonably argued is student debt as a form of indentured servitude.

No, fellow hypocrites. The for-profits didn’t teach us any of these sleazy innovations. We taught them.

x-posted:  howtheuniversityworks.com

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NBC’s Education Nation: Policy Summit or Puppet Show? http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/266 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/266#comments Tue, 28 Sep 2010 21:05:15 +0000 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/266 I’d like you to imagine the following. Suppose we are going to have a national summit on health care. Do you not suppose that a substantial number of the voices included would be from professionals in health care, including doctors and nurses? Would you have 3 people with just the head of the AMA to represent doctors?

Or how about legal reform – would not lawyers scream if such a conference were organized without a substantial portion of the main participants being members of the profession representing the range of opinions within the legal field?

Why then is it when it comes to education that people think it is appropriate to have major discussions about education without fair inclusion of the voices of those who bear the greatest burden for the education of our children, the parents and the teachers? –Kenneth Bernstein, Cooperative Catalyst

So I tied off my upper arm and mainlined anti-nausea drugs Sunday and Monday in order to stomach hours of biased, dishonest, irresponsible NBC hate propaganda paid for by, you guessed it, for-profit higher ed vendors and foundations devoted to privatizing public schools.

Just as Obama’s pursued the Republican party line on education, NBC has taken a page from Fox News and Oprah. Their lineup on a two-day policy summit with a dozen conference panels –you know, the kind of panels usually filled with folks with credible expertise in the topic–features politicians, astronauts, tv anchors, musicians, corporate executives, and charter school entrepreneurs.

NBC did include one or two figures associated with parent organizations. Just not those representing the the real views of most actual parents–you know, the real parents who on balance are unhappy with Obama’s education policy, who fired a mayor to get rid of Michelle Rhee, and who–when given the chance to vote–overwhelmingly support teacher-run schools over charter-school operators.

But somehow they completely failed to include practicing teachers, scholars of learning, or even recognized analysts of education policy.  All day Monday and Tuesday, the only figure in the summit remotely acquainted with the scholarship of learning wasRandi Weingarten, AFT president. She had to do double and triple duty, since she was simultaneously the only voice for practicing teachers, or for any policy recommendation other than those endorsed by Duncan’s Race to the Top.

Burn the Witch!
Incredibly, Weingarten played the same role all day Sunday. On Meet the Press and other programs, she was consistently positioned as a solitary voice against a solid bloc of panelists and journalists pounding away at the Duncan-Rhee party line. NBC positioned her on the extreme edge of the outdoor panel, literally in the wind, with her hair flying sidewise like the Wicked Witch piloting a broomstick.

Later, she faced an even larger panel completely united against her, this time featuring the propagandists who scored her appearances in Waiting with Superman with ominous chords redolent of Darth Vader.

They can feature both the director and composer of the film who painted her as the captain of the Death Star but not one credible authority on the positions being pushed by the film?

Interestingly, despite the outrageous set-up, on both programs Weingarten spoke more than any other participant–nearly as much all of the other participants combined.

Seems the shows’ hosts had to ask her to talk to nearly every point precisely because she was the only person who could provide any other perspective.

Perhaps also because she was the only person who actually had anything to say?

A Failed Hit Job
The one place where NBC allowed teachers–not scholars of learning or credible policy analysts–to have a few words was in a carefully scripted “town hall” program, segregated from all of the marquee shows and policy conference.

They stacked the audience with school administrators and charter-school teachers, all primed to spout their propaganda: “Teachers are under attack and we should be!” shouted one, on cue. “We young teachers don’t need tenure to do our jobs,” said another.

Even in the complete absence of journalistic scrutiny, the stories of these plants didn’t stand up to their own telling.

One charter-school hero stood up to mouth the no-excuses “challenge education” mantra that anybody can overcome any learning obstacle if they are confronted with sufficiently absurd expectations.

As an example, he cited his willingness to offer free day care to one of his students’ siblings in his classroom from 7am to 7pm, freeing the student from family-care responsibilities and allowing her to do her homework.

While laudable, his willingness to address the poverty of the student’s family in this way is however not, as they say, a scalable solution to the problem. Um, duh, most teachers have families of their own that they can’t and shouldn’t neglect to offer twelve hours of day care to others.

Right on the surface of this vignette is the cruel hypocritical absurdity–that those who are already sacrificing (the half of teachers who don’t quit in despair in the first five years) are not just asked but are really being forced to sacrifice more.

For instance, we could solve a lot of poverty-related issues if physicians or tv journalists or Wall Street banks turned their facililties into day-care centers and staffed them after hours.

Hey, let’s just say that everyone should work twelve hours a day for a teacher’s wage!

Any takers? I didn’t think so.

Nose Ring vs Soul Patch
NBC made the mistake of letting a few actual veteran teachers in the room (actually a tent on Rockefeller plaza). And the atmosphere was apparently charged: anchor Brian Williams called the room “a beehive, a cauldron of activity and emotion,” and joked about being in “physical danger.” (He also called one reporter “honey,” and flirted with one of the teachers on stage. Patronizing and chauvinist much? Guess we really are heading back to the Eisenhower era.)

Because NBC failed to make sure everyone in the room was an administrator or a twentysomething working-slash-volunteering before law school at a charter, we saw a couple of flashes of honest teacher feeling and insight.

These included thoughtful defenses of tenure as due process and analyses of the real issues (funding, poverty, support for professional development, workload, retention).

You could have heard a pin drop on Fifth Avenue when one California principal described her guilt at hiring a new teacher on the salary she was allowed to offer: “I basically condemned her to never owning her own home,” she said.

Astonishingly, one teacher that made it onto the show because she was acquainted with the anchor actually compared Davis Guggenheim to Hitler’s most brilliant propagandist, calling him “the Leni Riefenstahl of 2010.”

Personally I think that kind of comparison isn’t worth the backlash, but I think it could prove the most telling moment of the week.

In my experience, persons reaching for the Nazi comparison are intellectually or emotionally stunted, or else desperate. Since this apparently kind and thoughtful, intellectual person was evidently not the former, I think she was struggling to communicate–in the few seconds she was permitted -the stifled frustration and outrage of the tens of millions of parents, teachers, scholars and students who are being hurtled toward yet more schoolroom misery by this tsunami of pro-Duncan propaganda.

If you want to capture the essence of the tension that kept erupting through this scripted event, just fast forward to the middle of program, the second featured panel.

Comprising a charter-school reading teacher in blond dreadlocks and nose ring, and a public-school science teacher of the year sporting a soul patch, the panel was intended to talk about teaching technique.

Asked to describe how she succeeded as a teacher, Nose Ring was unable to manage a syllable describing or defending her teaching practice. She floundered helplessly (“well, you just show them how far behind they are in the world”) until the moderator let her off the hook, summarizing her philosophy: “Just teach ’em hard, huh?”

Invited to share his own teaching tips, Soul Patch, a public school teacher of the year, gently rebutted much of the propaganda previously circulated. American top students, he pointed out, perform at the same level as the top students anywhere in the world. The problem is inequality and unfairness, he observed.

Asked to celebrate the Duncan-Obama grim focus on STEM fields, science teacher of the year Soul Patch demurred, pointing out that his own practice and education research showed the importance of “right brain” creativity, of “movement and music right in the science classroom.”

Anti-social media
Up until a firestorm of complaint forced them to open the forum, NBC aggressively censored the one place where teachers and parents were mainly allowed to participate–on a Facebook page promoting the event. Even established columnists for national mainstream education journals like Education Week were repeatedly “unfriended” or had their comments removed.

Obama’s Today Show interview
This was only about twenty minutes on education before Lauer moved on, but kudos to Lauer for acting more like a journalist than anyone else NBC has put forward.

To his credit, Lauer only gave the administration props for the one initiative (pre-K schooling) actually supported by research, and showed that research in the video package.  He challenged the president on the unfair demonizing of teachers and teacher unions in Waiting for Superman. He pointed out that most charter schools underperform union schools.

Above all, he kept the focus on funding and support, quoting Clinton: “It’s not just a money thing, but it _is_ a money thing.”  Obama tried to counter with the Republican bromide that it “isn’t a problem we can spend our way out of,” and began mouthing accountability and competition cliches.

But Lauer kept at it finally getting the President to concede that there is no problem recruiting teachers into the profession–just a massive problem retaining them.

Most young teachers find they “can’t afford to stay” in the profession, Obama confessed, “especially when it comes to having families of their own.”

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Bye, Bye Duncan http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/265 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/265#comments Wed, 15 Sep 2010 22:02:00 +0000 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/265 President Obama’s 2010 back-to-school address is notable largely for lack of controversy. Apparently, by now most Republican pols have gotten the word: psst, on education, he’s on our side! The message–if you can call it that–(noses to the grindstone, kiddies!) was deliberately free of any content that could be directly related to the upcoming midterm elections. In stark contrast to last year’s hoopla, this year’s talk wasn’t even covered by many major newspapers.

The speech didn’t just steer clear of the midterms–it downplayed Obama’s own education initiatives, and his controversial Education Secretary, present at the speech, was only mentioned in the introduction. Anything about policy or funding–the unpopular “signature” program, Race to the Top? Not a word. It’s usual for the location for these sorts of things to signal a reference to the pol’s accomplishments, but this time nothing about the chosen location resonates with any Obama-Duncan initiative.

The meaning of these silences? Widespread rejection of his policies, for one thing.

For another: Beltway observers point to the same-day defeat of DC mayor Adrian Fenty, who tied his political fortunes to teacher-bashing schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. No one watching the DC mayoral contest can deny that Fenty bet his reelection on Rhee, and that Rhee’s policies are indistinguishable from Obama and Duncan’s.

The fact is, as the recent Gallup poll I discussed in my last entry made crystal clear: across the country, public-school parents like their schools.  Parents like their kids’ teachers–and trust them, not Arne Duncan, and not corporate education profiteers, with their futures.

In one of the most under-reported education stories last spring, in the poorest areas of Los Angeles, parents were given the chance to vote for Duncan-style charter schools under tough management with non-union faculty. Guess what?

Against all odds, at every one of the locations where they had the choice, parents universally chose schools run by cooperatives of unionized district schoolteachers. The vote wasn’t close– 87% of the vote went to schoolteacher-led proposals.

Don’t misunderstand: the district wanted to give management of the schools to the charters, but the parents’ vote was so overwhelming that they didn’t dare.

Conclusion? Parents aren’t stupid, and they haven’t fallen for cheap empire-on-the- decline theatrics– you know, Duncan and Obama playing Caligula of the schools, howling “fire them all!”  Nor are they sold on the xenophobic “keeping up with furriners’ test scores” fear-mongering.

Most parents don’t know much about other people’s schools–so worry about them, given the tripe they hear from pols and the newspapers-slash-education-corporations.

But they’ve informed themselves about the schools their own children attend, and the teachers who work there. They like their kids’ schools and teachers. They prefer teachers in charge of curriculum–even in charge of the schools themselves.

According to a recent Time poll backing up the Gallup results, they think teachers are deeply underpaid, underappreciated, and undersupported.  Americans would be willing to pay higher taxes to recruit & retain talent in the teaching profession. And they’re voting with the teachers, against management. (Interestingly Time didn’t publish most of the poll’s results.)

So what does that mean for secretary Duncan?

The activists for the next national day of action, October 7th, have drawn a target on his back, demanding “Fire Duncan!” on their promotional materials.

And it’s kinda interesting that the administration is trying out Jill Biden as the new face of its education initiatives.

Even so, I wouldn’t bet on a departure before the midterms. That would just draw attention to two years of failed policy. But perhaps a nice, quiet, spring 2011 exit?  With a new appointee named in time for the Obama high school commencement address in June?  Hmm… any thoughts for a Duncan replacement?

Bye, Bye Duncan

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Gallup: Citizens Smarter than NYT and Washington Post on Ed Policy, Again http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/264 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/264#comments Wed, 25 Aug 2010 20:56:13 +0000 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/264 When the president named Arne Duncan as his first Secretary of Education, he was doing a lot more, and a lot worse, than just naming a Chicago crony and basketball buddy to a critical Cabinet position. He was adopting one of the most aggressive, least tested, top-down, pro-corporate philosophies toward education administration ever promoted in this country.

Despite clear evidence that Duncan’s methods had failed to improve Chicago Public Schools by the only measure he overwhelmingly targeted (test scores), reporters from the corporate media tripped all over themselves to lavish friendly coverage on Duncan’s efforts to bring the same tactics to bear on a national scale. Taking advantage of state revenue shortages, Duncan took command of a massive fiscal war chest and turned it into a reality legislation show called Race to the Top.

“Want a piece of my billions?” Duncan asked the states, shaking his money bag. “Fight for it, winners take all! Whichever five or ten state legislatures enact law coming closest to my cruel, unproven vision of test-driven education, well, you folks can ride out the money storm in relative comfort. The rest of you, with your pie-in-the-sky ideas from John Dewey, you can rot in fiscal hell–no cash for the disobedient!”

Poll: Parents Won’t Be Fooled Again

Despite 18 months of press love, yesterday’s Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll shows Americans completing a resoundingly negative report card on Obama’s education initiatives, with a mere 34 percent giving the president a “B” or better, and 59% giving him a C, D, or F.

These numbers are significantly lower than his overall approval rating (currently near his lowest, at 42% favorable, 51% unfavorable). They represent consistent, bipartisan drops from the previous year, and come after sweeping legislative “victories” by the administration in dozens of states.

With similar clarity, the public overwhelming rejected point by point the aggressive, market-ideological thuggery comprising Duncan’s arsenal of “school reform” tactics: paying students for grades, mass firings, using punitive funding schemes, etc.

So far the main result of Obama and Duncan’s adventures in school reform is that now a startling 80% of respondents believe the federal government should play no role in school accountability.

In stark contradiction of the administration’s views, respondents shared the beliefs of most teachers and their unions, that the largest problem with schools is a shortfall in funding, that the major issue with teacher competence is support for retraining and keeping up to date, and that the primary purpose of evaluating teachers is helping them to improve teaching (rather than assessing eligibility for merit pay or providing evidence for dismissal). Only a small number of Americans (19%, down from 25% in 2000) agree with the administration that teaching pay should be “very closely tied” to students’ academic achievement (though a clear and growing majority feel that it should be “somewhat” closely tied, whatever that means).

It turns out that most Americans like the public schools they know most about, the ones their children attend–and they like those schools a lot.

Seventy-seven percent of public school parents give an A or B to the school their oldest child attends, the highest such figure since Gallup first posed the question, in 1985.

However, respondents rate other schools in their area–the ones they only read press reports about–lower, or just over half favorably.

Most interestingly: respondents rated public schools in the nation as a whole–schools they only know about from national corporate media–very poorly, with just 18% giving an A or a B.

Even in this context–with widespread concern about the schools for other people’s children–respondents actively rejected the draconian close-the-school, fire-them-all approach. Gallup’s discussion of the poll concludes: Overwhelmingly, Americans favor keeping a poorly performing school in their community open with existing teachers and principals, while providing comprehensive outside support. This finding is consistent across political affiliation, age, level of education, region of the country, and other demographics.

What’s next?

From the point of view of actual electoral politics: well, I’d watch out if I was Arne Duncan. The teachers’ unions may not be able to hold out on Obama in the next national elections, but they can sure choose to let a few Democrats dangle in the cool breeze of public disapproval. Especially in those forty or so states dubbed “losers” by Duncan’s Race to the Top chicanery.

And how better to signal a change of direction than to ask Duncan to fall on his basketball? In fact, displeased Dems have already trimmed a few hundred million from Duncan’s war chest, a legislative shot across the executive bow.

I’d say Duncan’s days of spanking the states are soon over–either that, or he’ll spend a lot of time eating love-the-teacher crow through the next national election campaign.

All the news fit for education corporations?

Closer to home, I guess I’d like to see a few more of us start to question the objectivity of The New York Times and Washington Post, both corporations with increasingly large hopes that profits from their education ventures will prop up sagging journalism revenues. The Post, which owns Kaplan and shocked readers by blatantly pushing Kaplan’s legislative agenda in print and in person is already an education corporation that owns a newspaper as a sideline.

The Times is only aspiring to that level, but as they say of the number-two organization in any field, that just means they’re trying harder.

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NYT Offers Dianetics for Higher Ed http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/262 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/262#comments Tue, 27 Jul 2010 16:06:57 +0000 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/262 Should The New York Times (NYT) exist? Ha–you’re thinking, “What an unfair question!” Or “You’ve framed the debate in an obviously unfair or careless way.”

And right you are. But since I’m a rich and powerful chunk of media capital with a stake in the answer, I don’t care what you think, and I’m free to compound the injury by holding a false “debate” on a question that unfairly asks one side to argue for its existence.

Enter The New York Times and its latest bungled attempt at analyzing higher ed, which just riffs on a piece reported by Robin Wilson for the Chronicle. As if framing a loaded question weren’t enough, they stack the deck, a couple of different ways. In the more obvious manipulation of the lineup, opponents of tenure outnumber proponents 3-2.

More importantly: in a debate about the “demise” of tenure,” the debate’s framers don’t include any voices of persons who are living the circumstances they purport to examine: the life of career faculty, full time or part time, with a teaching-intensive load and a nontenurable contract. One participant is on a nontenurable research contract–for a Harvard outfit that does management consulting for higher-ed administration, natch. But that’s like dressing up the testimony of someone who’s always driven a Rolls as the honest voice of straphangers–the near-volunteer faculty on freaking food stamps, like Monica, Andy, and many others.

As it turns out, 95% of the sense made in this debate is contained in the 40% assigned to the pro-tenure folks. AAUP president Cary Nelson patiently explains the centrality of tenure for academic freedom, and USC’s Adrianna Kezar, points to the real debate we should be having–about the high cost of nontenurable hiring in higher education, especially for the majority of faculty whose appointments are teaching-intensive, and the students they try to serve in the unsavory conditions management has created.

In the Opinion of L. Ron Hubbard…

Excepting a couple of minor points by the nontenurable researcher/management consultant, the anti-tenure side had little to offer beyond witless praise for The Market. Remember the the Planet of the Apes sequel where the surviving mutant humans live in a cave and worship the Holy Bomb that destroyed them?

It’s like that, including the gallows flavor to the campy humor, once you rip off the masks of the robed ritualistas:

Batting first for the NYT education-capitalist home team is Richard Vedder, perennial flack for the neo-cons at the American Enterprise Institute. His line here, that tenure “reduces intellectual diversity,” is just warmed-over David Horowitz, long debunked by any serious study.  The fact is that more academics fear for their academic freedom today than in the McCarthy era–because they lack access to tenure, not the other way around.

Playing new kid in the lineup is Mark C. Taylor, a distance education entrepreneur with books and interests ranging from religion and organization theory to management and–I am not making this up–stealing dirt from the graves of famous persons.

Taylor’s data-free ruminations bear as much connection to the actual world of higher education as Scientology does to particle physics. He’s the fellow that bemoaned per-course salaries “as low as” five grand (!) and basically acts as if you could still arm-chair analyze the academic labor system, which is nearly 80% contingent, as if it were a “market” in tenure-track jobs.

Taylor’s retread analysis is straight outta 1972: “If you were a CEO,” he begins, and races downhill from there. Dunno, Mark: If I was the CEO of my neighborhood… If I was the CEO of my marriage… If I was the CEO of this poker game… If I was the CEO of your church… If I was the CEO of the planet… If my dad were my CEO… If I were the CEO of this one-night stand… If I was the CEO of this classroom… If I was the CEO of this audience at this Green Day concert…

Gosh, Mark. Seems like some social organizations and relationships shouldn’t have CEOs at all.

Wait, there’s more. Taylor goes on to, like, use math and stuff because it sounds good when you’re talking about money. He figures out the lifetime cost of paying tenured faculty and boggles, claiming that funding this commitment “would require” four million in endowment now and thirty million thirty years from now. Et voila! Clearly, then, paying faculty anything at all is impossible! QE freaking D, lads and ladies.

Of course the fact that most faculty aren’t paid out of endowments at all but, like, from tuition and appropriations and grants and stuff, does create some stumbles among the seraphim in Taylor’s elegant pin-top choreography.

I did say that the anti-tenure side contributed 5% of the sense out of the 60% of the space allotted to them.

That modicum goes to Cathy Trower of Harvard’s COACHE, like the handbag, with an elegant E for education.

Her project is like a higher-ed stepchild version, less mean and less well-funded, of Harvard’s toxic b-school/ed-school partnership–you know, the folks that brought you Arne Duncan.

Unlike her comrades, Trower actually thinks about tenure and correctly advocates for a less rigid understanding of it. Somewhat overdramatically, she proposes blowing up the tenure system and starting over with a new constitutional convention:

Some features of a newly imagined faculty workplace might include variable probationary periods, with extensions for parenthood, rather than a fixed seven-year up-or-out provision for tenure; a tenure track for faculty members focused on teaching; a non-tenure track that affords a meaningful role in shared governance; interdisciplinary centers with authority to be the locus of tenure; broader definitions of scholarship and acceptable outlets and media to “publish” research….

Most of these notions, of course, are very sensible, and versions of them are in place all over the country. No need to lug jerrycans of petrol to the bonfire.  It’s not until we get to Trower’s stealthy last two suggestions (“tenure for a defined period of time; and the option to earn salary premiums while forgoing tenure entirely”) that we see that the NYT was perfectly fair to run her piece under the headlines “How to Start Over” and “Get Rid of (Tenure).” Trower conveniently left these out of the version she published two years ago in AAUP’s Academe.

Most Tenured Faculty ARE on a Teaching Track

If Trower were better informed about what’s actually going on, she’d be aware that all of her reasonable suggestions have distinguished histories as well as plenty of contemporary reality. Rendered most invisible by Trower’s crowing from the business-administration battlements is the suggestion that we need to invent a “tenure track for faculty members focused on teaching.”

Huh?

In 1970, the overwhelming majority of tenured faculty were on teaching-intensive appointments. Even today, after four decades of hiring teaching-intensive appointments nontenurably (full-time and part-time), tenured teaching-intensive faculty out-number tenured research-intensive faculty as much as two to one.

The idea that “tenured” equates to teaching 6 hours a week or fewer is just silly propaganda. And I for one am sick of liberal bastions like Harvard and the NYT passing off propaganda as scholarship.

Including propaganda that has numbers in it: for crying out loud, my math-avoidant friends, the whole meaning of the expression that “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics” is that any paid mouthpiece, windbag or liar can claim to be “data-driven.”

I mean, Cathy, let’s be real here.

MANAGEMENT has spent the last four decades actively dismantling a long-existing “tenure track for faculty members focussed on teaching.” Now you lean out from the windows of your Lear jet to shout that we need to hold a constitutional convention to invent it?

You folks at Harvard oughta know that “data-driven” should mean something more than running a bunch of surveys. It should mean some reasonable attempt at a connection with the facts.

Regular readers know I’ve been pointing out the epic badness of the New York Times’ reporting on higher education for some time now. For what it’s worth, I have it on good authority that more than one academic journal is interested in taking a closer look at media bias in higher education coverage.

Of course this is a little like saying I know several clever Davids prepared to flip the bird at slow-witted Goliath. On the other hand, one of them might prove to own a slingshot.

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The United States of Alabama http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/260 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/260#comments Wed, 14 Jul 2010 16:38:09 +0000 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/260 Only way to please me
turn around and leave
and walk away
–Alabama Getaway, lyrics by Robert Hunter

Many who learn that the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) amputated a $650,000 state appropriation, not to mention a flow of grant money, just to rid itself of a labor center (and Glenn Feldman, the accomplished historian who directed it) will focus on regional differences. One early commenter to Peter Schmidt’s report for the Chronicle blamed “Dixie” culture, saying that this is what happens to someone who “bucks the system in that part of the country. The more the South changes, the more it remain the same.”

As a veteran of the Southern-gothic, All-The-Kings-Men style politics of one right-to-work state university with close administrator connections to UAB, I guess my first impulse was at least similar: I can still remember the liberation I felt when I left my tenured position at the scandal-ridden University of Louisville (UL), where concerned faculty were run out of town for questioning the wall-to-wall administrative solidarity that protected a dean embezzling his federal grants, a scheme of extreme work-study that has turned thousands of students into the serfs of UPS, and claims of “research-1″ status for a campus with a six-year graduation rate hovering around 30 percent.

As just one small instance of my own experience: the aforementioned embezzling dean tried to shut down the academic labor journal I founded (then being edited by one of my graduate students and my friend and colleague Wayne Ross, one of the many who left UL– in his case moving on to Canada’s answer to Cal-Berkeley, the University of British Columbia). That little act of nastiness wasn’t even one of the 30+ official faculty complaints about that one individual that the UL administrative Borg was covering up. But what drove us away was in most cases not one act; there were dozens of acts that each dissenter experienced, some raising to the level of grievable offenses, others just making life hard.

‘Sweet Home USA’ for Business

But despite that temptation, my second impulse is more analytical. The point isn’t any minor differences (even differences of degree) displayed by scandal-plagued politicos and jet-setting higher ed “leadership” in Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee over the past decade. The real point, as commenter Ellen Schrecker points out, is the similarities–that labor and labor scholarship continue to be under assault across the country.

I’d go further than Ellen with the similarities–it’s a question of the turn toward steadily more anti-democratic practices of education administration more broadly. Not to mention the related notion that politicians are, effectively, the “managers” of the public sphere that we can trace to Democrats Clinton and Gore, right on down to their intellectual heir and Wal-mart admirer currently occupying the White House.

It’s a pretty big picture, and one that clearly doesn’t yield to partisan analysis: the scary stuff is what Democrats and Republicans agree on. Obama’s ed secretary Arne Duncan made Tennessee sole winner of the reviled Race to the Top competition because of the state’s willingness to do to both K-12 and higher ed what he’d already done in Chicago: turn schools over to private and for-profit managers; silence teachers, students, and parents; strip down the curriculum; increase the direct voice of commercial interests in administration at every level.

Likewise, the UAB business school dean (Klock) responsible for pushing  first practiced his hatcheting ways here in California. It’s not a regional issue at all or even restricted to higher education workplaces.

The many things that should concern us about Feldman’s experience in Alabama are all things happening in schools at every level across the country:

+ Administrator pro-business bias

+ Consolidation of administrator power

+ Declining faculty power and declining faculty solidarity

+ Abuse of credentialing (UAB has demanded that full-professor Feldman go back to school and earn a year’s worth of credits to retain his tenure)

+ Ever-closer ties between corporations, politics and the campus

+ Business influence on curriculum

+ The culture-struggle practice of administration, designed to produce compliant subjectivities and expel dissenters

+ A growing legal web that muzzles faculty governance speech at public institutions

+ The abuse of standards of civility and collegiality to paint an understandably upset victim as unreasonable, a tendency in which I have to say that Peter Schmidt’s reporting unfortunately participates (though to be fair to Schmidt I haven’t seen the documents he characterizes).

In general, though, on this subject I agree with the complaints of commenter “thomasjefferson”:

“Let’s see. He was a tenured, full professor at UAB for 14 years. They shut down the labor center of which he was director and then they tried to set him up for termination by trying to get him to take 18 grad hours in a subject in which they’re planning to shut down the department. And he’s not happy about that. I wonder why?”

And with commenter “mchag12″:

“The relationship with the faculty at public universities is just becoming untenable as faculty are treated as line items to be dispensed with at will by high paid administrators. What would you do, azprof, if your department was slated for demolition and your university actually asked the state legislature to defund it? Back out of the room shuffling and bowing and repeating thank you, thank you? If you think you are safe, you’re not.”

That last line by mchag says it all.

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Hooked on Measurement http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/259 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/259#comments Thu, 24 Jun 2010 17:38:09 +0000 http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/259 Just last year, Stanley Fish was playing Clint Eastwood with his manifesto: Do Your Job, Punk! (or, My Tinfoil Hat Keeps Politics Out of My Teaching–Get Yours Today!) In that widely panned book, he argued that the role of the faculty was to produce and distribute knowledge magically apart from the mundane and political.

Earlier this week he more convincingly took on the student evaluation of teaching and specifically, a Texas proposal to hold tenured faculty “more accountable” by giving faculty bonuses of up to $10,000 for earning high customer assessments of specified learning outcomes.

Fish makes two arguments against the proposal. He squanders pixels bolstering his weaker point, that students aren’t necessarily in a position to judge whether Fish-as-teacher-phallus has, ugh, “planted seeds that later grew into mighty trees of understanding.”

Far better is his second point:

Students tend to like everything neatly laid out; they want to know exactly where they are; they don’t welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers. But sometimes (although not always) effective teaching involves the deliberate inducing of confusion, the withholding of clarity, the refusal to provide answers; sometimes a class or an entire semester is spent being taken down various garden paths leading to dead ends that require inquiry to begin all over again, with the same discombobulating result; sometimes your expectations have been systematically disappointed….

Needless to say, that kind of teaching is unlikely to receive high marks on a questionnaire that rewards the linear delivery of information and penalizes a pedagogy that probes, discomforts and fails to provide closure. Student evaluations, by their very nature, can only recognize, and by recognizing encourage, assembly-line teaching that delivers a nicely packaged product that can be assessed as easily and immediately as one assesses the quality of a hamburger.

This part rings mostly true for me. No question, Fish is clearly wrong to generalize so broadly about students and evaluation instruments. As students enter majors and graduate programs, they are of course far more likely to welcome the sort of intellectual adventure that he describes.

And it’s just plain out of touch with the subject he is purporting to address to claim that all kinds of student evaluation are “by their very nature” (huh? philosopher much?) of the sort that can “only recognize” teaching-as-information-delivery. Nonetheless, that’s the kind administrators mostly impose so his point is valid despite the unwarranted generalization.

That said, I personally like getting student evaluations of my teaching, even the lame sort that predominate and which Fish is critiquing here. I learn things even from bad instruments poorly used by persons with little knowledge of the field or who display imperfect judgement, and so on.

My concern is with the way these instruments are misused–by activist administrators and politicians, aided and abetted by paid policy flacks. The managerial literature cheerfully describes all this as the “assessment movement” to consolidate their control of “institutional mission.”

Faculty themselves, even with tenure, learn all too quickly to teach to the instrument.

Example: long after receiving tenure (twice!) I once got mid-range scores in response to a question asking students to assess whether their capacity for critical thought improved. The next term I included a twenty-minute exercise studying different definitions of critical thought the week before they took the survey: my scores jumped to the top of the range, with no other change in the syllabus.

I use that example because it’s double-sided. On the one hand, it shows how a modest change can essentially manipulate the results or, more to the point, manipulate the students providing the results.

On the other hand this modest change, motivated by a base consideration, was also a real one: it marked a moment where I took seriously the importance of reflection in the learning process.

By asking students to reflect on what had happened to their thinking in the class, they were not only more likely to appreciate the teaching, they were more likely to appreciate, value–and retain–the change itself.

So the stupid instrument, my vanity, and a modest change resulted in better learning.

While that instance of teaching to the instrument worked out more or less fine, most responsible studies are pretty clear that teaching to the instrument is generally harmful.

For instance, one Fish commenter quoted a reliably-constructed study that concluded “professors who excel at promoting contemporaneous student achievement teach in ways that improve their student evaluations but harm the follow-on achievement of their students in more advanced classes.”

In other words: teaching to get high customer assessments produces intellectual junk food: the focus group says “yum!” but it’s all bad news after that. This is consistent with study after study on “teaching to the test” in K-12: the more tightly that management and politicians grip the handful of sand that is teaching and learning, the less they grasp.

Most of the commenters don’t address the motivation for the Texas proposal, which is to standardize and marketize the curriculum along the lines supported by the current administration. An easily assessable form of learning-as-information-download is an easily commodified form of learning: “Log in to Pixel University, where you get the exact same education as Yalies!” It’s also more easily controlled by a political bureaucracy, along the lines of K-12. Both Republicans and Democrats are actively supporting for-profit “education providers,” and the leading edge of their contribution is redefining knowledge as information delivery.

So what’s best about Fish’s effort here is the emphasis upon the nature of learning itself, which is easily distinguishable from information download.

The most difficult lesson for my first-year students to learn–the most frustrating, the one with the longest-term impact–is the construction of a review of scholarly literature, toward posing a research question unanswered by that literature. I ask them to zero in on a “bright spot” in the literature, where conflicting views are unresolved, or a “blank spot,” a question that hasn’t been posed. I try to help them to think of a modest but original way that they might advance the conversation.

The lesson takes them on a journey of the sort that Fish describes, full of frustrations and ventures into the failings of academic prose, dead ends and discombobulations. What they learn is that any act of knowledge origination emerges from a vast multivocal conversation and is framed by the professional modesty of the actual researcher. They are often amazed by the narrow frame of actual research questions, the extent of qualifications and hesitations, and the ways that knowledge is produced by error. They are often confused by the extent of collaboration, the fact that questions aren’t constructed in binary terms, the fact that questions are constructed, and by the amount of time spent acknowledging the diverse views and paths explored by one’s professional colleagues.

As Fish points out, students come to us trained to see “the master perspective” (of history-as-objective-fact, eg, rather than history-as-historiography, the writing of Helen Keller, Jack London and Einstein’s socialism into, or out of, the conversation). Or at most they see two perspectives, the binary the either/or of right and wrong, or for and against, good and evil, etc. I tell them that easy clarifications–such as “are you for or against” such and such a proposition– are usually trick questions, that making knowledge and the act of learning entail entering into a hive of confusion, ambiguity, and error.

They don’t always like this lesson, which is deeply experiential: they have to try to read difficult things, ask for help, wait in line to get journals delivered to them. But they are always glad to have had it, and it clearly yields real results in subsequent classes.

Can this sort of lesson and journey be assessed? Yes, but not so easily by the sort of instruments we use for the purpose. We do need better instruments. For instance, measurement per se is not intrinsically useful: you might say losing 20 lbs at Pixel U is the same as losing 20 lbs at Swankfield–until you learn that at one school you lost the weight by exercising, and at the other they amputated a limb.

More than better instruments, though, we need better attitudes toward these instruments. We could start with a critical understanding of why administrations and politicians support the kind of assessments they do, and not the many better alternatives.

Above all: we need to be able to offer a clear, cogent justification of education as learning and distinguish between learning and download.

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