Saturday, August 10, 2013


 

Faculty need one thing to survive: happy students

By Professor Doom

 

     Lest I be accused of not looking carefully at faculty’s role in destroying higher education, allow me to provide a third essay on the topic.

 

     “This teacher is completely incompetent. If any of you are planning to use math for anything, you need to get out of here and take College Algebra with someone else.”

--announcement a student made in a class at my institution. I gave this student a B in my College Algebra course, and he decided to take it again under another instructor, hoping to do better. He was disgusted at the lack of course content—it took a whole semester to cover in class what I covered in the first few weeks of my course. Administration doesn’t like me, but LOVED the teacher of this course, who of course had better retention. Accreditation has no clue that some courses cover so much less than the course catalogue says.

 

     Having studied for years to get the degree, and somehow managed to trick administration into hiring him, the honest educator now has to figure out how to keep an academic job.

     The grapevine is strong on campus: we all know what kind of instructors our colleagues are, or at the bare minimum what kind of instructors students think our colleagues are. The reader has probably picked up that I’m not a “fish” at the college, so let me go over my course structure. I cover perhaps 75% of the material that we tell accreditation we cover in our courses, more than anyone else on campus (as near as I can tell, this isn’t fraud since accreditation doesn’t really care about what’s in a course). I give all my students ten points (on a 100 point scale) just for having a pulse (grading and attendance, which are given in full for every student regardless of whether they show up or do homework). My students also drop their lowest test grade or can skip a test, no questions asked. I provide the questions and answers to many of the test questions before the day of the test—very similar questions, for the most part, but word-for-word and number-for-number is common enough. The end result of these policies is a student can pass just one test the whole semester and pass my course…just one month of effort out of a four month semester is good enough for me to pass a student.

     And yet, I’m the bastard, perhaps the worst teacher on campus as far as administration is concerned. My retention simply isn’t high enough, because I ask so much more than the other faculty.

      I’m a minority among full-time faculty, as I make my students take their tests in-class under my direct supervision, no multiple choice, no online no take-home.  Less than half the campus does tests this way now, instead going to administratively-approved test taking methods where cheating is so much easier.

     It is well known that course policies that challenge students to do the work and learn the material for themselves are also course policies that reduce retention, and are discouraged. Similarly, catching cheaters, especially with the intent of expelling them from the course, is a bad idea for faculty wishing to keep their position. An honest instructor needs to accept the punishment he’ll take if he provides an education with any level of integrity.

 

Administrator: “Do not penalize students for missing class on Saturday.”

--due to administrative issues and an unfortunate hurricane, a night class didn’t meet until a month into the semester. The only solution to address the class time was an extra class, given in the early morning on a Saturday. It’s a miserable solution--I could have provided another option, but admin didn’t ask me. I’m not nasty enough to force students to come on Saturday, but it would have been nice if administration would at least support me trying to motivate students to come.

 

     So students complain about how horrible I am, and I have low retention. On the other hand, a high retention teacher, no matter if widely regarded as incapable of doing his job (and also, actually incapable of doing his job), receives positions, promotions, and kudos from the administration.

                                                                                       

Administrator, to groundskeeper: “Go buy as much green paint as you can, and pour it on the grass.”

--Likely administrative response to an imaginary study showing campuses with greener grass have higher retention.

 

     Retention is everything, and 100% retention all the time is the ultimate way to please administration. It should be obvious that a course everyone passes probably doesn’t have content worth paying for, much less the thousands of dollars typical of college tuition, but administration doesn’t feel that way at all. In primary school, even secondary school, perhaps it should be that most every student should pass every course. Centuries of human experience have taught us that almost all people in civilized society can learn how to read, how to write, how to perform arithmetic, all on at least a basic level. These are all things addressed before what is commonly called “higher education,” or should be.

     There’s no mythology of “Ooh, he can read” or “Respect him, he can sign his name” or even “Only with hard work can you count to ten,” or at least such myths haven’t been around for centuries. Certainly, it’s important when a child learns to walk, to say his first word, to tie his shoes without help…but none of these important skills are particularly prestigious past a certain age, because everyone can do these things. There is a mythology to college graduates, however, and to higher education, a mythology earned as such graduates achieve things that not everyone can do.

      But admin wants everyone to pass every course. Or else.

Student evaluation comment: “Nice person, but this class was a waste of time.”

--The most popular professor on campus really is a nice person…but every student calls her classes a waste of time. She doesn’t merely  get 100% passing, she gives out 100% A’s. I reiterate: why bother with a course with 100% passing rate, much less 100% A’s? If everyone can do it perfectly well, why should there be a charge?

     And yet, the path of “higher education” now is to pass everyone, give a degree to everyone, assert that everyone has every skill, no matter how difficult that skill actually is to acquire, how little effort is put into gaining that skill, or even how incapable that person is of demonstrating that skill.

 

“I saw one of your students today. Please give him a make-up exam.”

--“Request” from administrator. The student missed the original test date. I’d already offered the student a make-up at his time of choice, which he missed. I let him pick another time. He missed that. I offered him another time. He missed that, too. He asked again, and I told him I’d had enough, that he could just drop the test, no harm done. He complained to administration, who only wanted to resolve the complaint as easily as possible.

 

 

     The “pass everyone” policy makes for happy customers on campus, but it also leads to a thousand people with degrees in Psychology applying for a single position that requires such a degree…and 999 eventually finding themselves trying to pay off student loans with janitor’s wages. The one who manages to get the job eventually loses it because he has no skills backing up the piece of paper. A few years of such bad hiring based on degree, and the employer figures out the degree alone is worthless; now an applicant needs a few years experience as well. The janitors with a degree won’t be able to get the job then, either.

     This scenario is playing out all across the country every day, but administrators don’t mind because the customers were happy on graduation day. An honest faculty member would try to help the students gain useful skills, help his institution gain a reputation for quality graduates so they could stand out from the crowd of applicants for a job, or help his students gain real satisfaction from gaining real knowledge and abilities.

     Administration doesn’t want any of these things, is paid way too much to not care about these things…what is desired is high retention, nothing more.

     I have taught a few courses where I passed the entire class, even gave good grades to the entire class; sometimes it happens that a small collection of good students comes together. Never has administration on these occasions bothered to ask if maybe I wasn’t presenting a suitably challenging course. On the other hand, there have been many occasions in other classes where I had to explain why retention was poor.

     Faculty get the message: pass everyone, and no problem. Fail “too many” (and this amount drops every semester), and it’s a problem.

 

Congratulations to [professor] for getting 100% retention in her Math for Education Majors class, and over 95% retention overall this semester.”

--Special praise given to a faculty member during a departmental meeting.

 

     Even if an honest faculty member is hired, there will be no rewards from doing an honest job, and he’ll probably be discriminated against as a minority. He will face constant pressure if he dares challenge students to do more than that which anybody, even the least skilled among them, can do. As an added bonus, he’ll have to sit quietly and watch copious praise heaped on associates that he knows aren’t doing anything to educate students.

Admin: “I received a formal complaint from a student. You should be more helpful.”

Me, looking over complaint: “The student missed a month of classes with no explanation. What work she did turn in, she failed, every time. She came to the last day of the semester and asked what she could do to pass. I explained that there was nothing I could do at that point, and that she should just take the course again, coming to class more regularly and doing the work. Did she say I was rude?”

Admin: “No, but that’s still not good enough. This complaint is going into your record, and I’m deducting from your performance evaluation.”

--I’m not kidding. A student can fail every assignment, miss a month of classes, and still influence my job if I don’t pass her. There really is a permanent record of this. I really wish I didn’t have to keep saying “I can’t make this stuff up.” I can only imagine that the student was given passing grades by other faculty she begged from, and was disappointed at my having even minimal standards.

     To keep his job, an honest faculty member will need to keep the students happy, and you just can’t do that if you fail anyone; failing students complain to admin, after all. Most faculty have no choice but to reduce standards, hoping that will reduce failures. And at least we come to faculty’s role here: the perpetual reduction of standards.

     Unfortunately, reducing standards doesn’t help that much. Educationists don’t understand how it works with students: students never do more than what is asked, and usually do less. When a teacher told me to read 50 pages in a book? I’d read those 50 pages, maybe less. I never read 51 pages, and I bet nobody reading this essay treated school any differently.

     This is why when you reduce the standards, it doesn’t really help that much with passing rates. The classic example comes from decades ago, when there was controversy about letting kids use calculators in school. What was happening, the schools were failing to teach students the basics of arithmetic, and it was hoped that introducing calculators would offset the failings of school. It worked initially, the students that struggled to learn arithmetic could use the calculators well.

     So, the standard got lowered to calculator use. The standard was lowered from “can do arithmetic”, which couldn’t be met, to “can use a calculator”, which is now not met. Today’s students are basically incapable of even using calculators; it’s truly stunning how often I have to stop and explain what I mean by “copy these symbols into your calculator” and then have to literally stand over the student and guide the button pressing step by step so the student can add, subtract, multiply, and divide with a calculator.

     The point: you always get less than what you ask for from students. The less you ask, the less you get. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to follow how that works; it seems to take a Ph.D. in Education to not understand this simple idea, however.

     Back on today’s topic: skill and knowledge are irrelevant to being college faculty. To keep his position, a faculty member needs to have high retention, high passing. One semester of low retention will lead to punishment, two can lead to dismissal; the only response is to lower standards, leading to a death spiral of standards. Should higher education be reduced to the point that everyone passes? If so, why not just deduct four years of tuition money immediately, and award the degree right away, so that the “student” can go into the real world and start doing something productive?

     Think about it.