Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why is the answer always "innovation"?

Even this past week's Education Week admits that things are pretty bad for America’s high school and college graduates as compared with their peers in most other development countries.

Of course, what Ed Week doesn't acknowledge is that much of the blame falls on K12 schools and all the problems with today's trends in K12 education (Reform Math; Constructivism, Balanced Literacy, student-centered learning, etc., etc.). But were I to identify the top things to fix at the college level, I'd say they are:

1. the extra costs, passed on to students on their families, of the steep rise in the proportions of salaried administrators; and of growing numbers of non-academic perks like rec centers, weaving studios, and luxury dorms.

2. the decline in the humanities in instruction of basic knowledge, analytical skills, and writing skills (via the drop in survey courses and the dominance of “critical theory” and postmodern claptrap over facts and communicative clarity).

3. the shrinking time college students spend studying, which, over the last fifty years, has dropped from 24 hours a week to about 15.

In a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, however, Jon Cohen and Jim Kessler, respectively the president and senior vice-president for policy at the Third Way, assert that the top problem is something completely different: namely, the general quality of college-level teaching:

At the K-12 level, the No Child Left Behind law required training, evaluation and assessment of teachers. But at the college level, professors are mostly on their own. They typically come through the ranks of Ph.D. programs, receive little training on how to teach, and are — at research universities — granted tenure primarily for scholarship, not effective instruction.
Currently, the federal government gives just 24 cents in postsecondary education improvement grants for every $100 in grants for research; that number should be at least doubled. By 2020, every college that gets federal aid should be required to have a plan to train professors, improve the quality of instruction and measure student learning. This need not be a top-down mandate; the universities should be allowed to compete for federal funds to design the best assessments of whether and how students learn.
While it’s probably true that many college professors could teach better, the likely result of any pressure to "have a plan to train professors and improve the quality of instruction" will give carte blanche to education schools to tell other departments how to teach. This, in turn, will result in a decline in the quality of instruction, as professors are pressured to get in line with all those enduring education-school fads: to step down from their lecterns, to further de-emphasize discrete bodies of basic factual knowledge and the mastery of discrete skills, and to guide from the side while students work in groups doing hands-on, interdisciplinary activities with the latest so-called "educational" technology—all of those key elements of what some people call "innovative teaching."

Indeed, "innovative teaching methods" are exactly what the authors want, so certain are they that it’s a lack of innovation, rather than a trend away from traditional teaching practices, that explains why things have deteriorated:
A research study commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently found that just 20 percent of faculty members used innovative teaching methods, like team-teaching across subjects, soliciting real-time student feedback in class and using social media to spur discussion outside the lecture hall.
No wonder, then, that 45 percent of a sample study of more than 2,300 students demonstrated no significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning or writing after two years of college, as the education scholars Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa concluded in a landmark 2011 book, “Academically Adrift.”
Perhaps my own college experience failed to bestow "gains in critical thinking" upon me—after all, none of my professors used innovative teaching methods—but I simply can’t fathom why, when things get worse, the answer is to innovate rather than to go back those practices (of professors, of students, and of colleges as a whole) that coincided with the heights from which our society has fallen.


Niels Henrik Abel said...

No. Just no. Keep the ed school dunderheads away from the other college instructors. It's bad enough that I get dinged on my observations for stupid stuff like failing to use the right buzzwords in my lectures and not phrasing section objectives in ways that can be "measurable" - never mind I get the objectives verbatim from the textbook itself, and if it's good enough for the textbook author and publisher, I don't see how my dean can have any grounds for objection.

Why don't the ed school people just go back to playing school with their stuffed animals like they no doubt did as kids, and leave the rest of us alone?

Auntie Ann said...

Because using the same books you have in storage doesn't keep the money flowing. If you can show that you can get the job done using the same old thing, then your budget will stagnate or shrink. Because every conference teachers and administrators go to is filled with vendors with shiny booths and flashy demonstrations selling snake-oil to the same people who bought last year's snake oil.

Barry Garelick said...

What Auntie Ann said. Prime example: Much ado is being made over "formative assessments" with seminars on how to do it, books on the subject, etc. Good teachers have been doing this for years: checking for students understanding and adjusting accordingly. It's called "teaching".

Unknown said...

Many years ago, I remember reading an old Columbia adage that the widest street in the world is the one separating Teachers' College from the rest of the campus. Everyone I know says that the ed school at their colleges was an academic wasteland and had the worst teachers.

Anonymous said...

"Many years ago, I remember reading an old Columbia adage that the widest street in the world is the one separating Teachers' College from the rest of the campus."

As someone who picked up some extra money in college by tutoring, I can say that "education" majors were the dumbest and least-teachable tutoring subjects. And many of these were not just wannabe-teachers, but actual teachers back for additional courses.