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Tenure

  • How Important Is Undergraduate Teaching In Public R1 Universities? How Important Should It Be?

    Written on April 29, 2013

    Our guest author today is Ian Robinson, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and in the Residential College's interdisciplinary Social Theory and Practice program at the University of Michigan.

    I ended my previous post by arguing that (1) if teaching is at least as valuable as research, and (2) nontenure-track (NTT) faculty teach at least as well as tenure-track (TT) faculty, then the very large pay disparities between the two classes of faculty that characterize American universities today violate a basic principle of workplace fairness: equal pay for equal work. When conditions (1) and (2) are met, then, all an institution can do to defend current practice is plead poverty: we can’t afford to do what we ourselves must acknowledge to be “the right thing."

    But what about places like the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, where I work? Is condition (1) met in what are sometimes called “R1” universities like mine? If not, maybe big pay disparities are warranted by the fact that, in such universities, research is a much higher institutional priority than undergraduate teaching. If teaching is a low enough priority, current pay inequalities could be justified by the fact that NTT faculty are not paid to do research and publishing – even though many of them do it – and, conversely, that most TT faculty pay is for their research and publishing, rather than their teaching.

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  • Are Nontenure-Track Faculty Worse Teachers? The Short Answer Is No.

    Written on April 15, 2013

    Our guest author today is Ian Robinson, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and in the Residential College's interdisciplinary Social Theory and Practice program at the University of Michigan.

    Critics of higher education’s growing reliance on nontenure-track (NTT) faculty for undergraduate teaching routinely assert that NTT faculty are inferior teachers, and, therefore, that the quality of undergraduate education is deteriorating. This is true even of critics such as Marc Bousquet, the author of How the University Works (2008), who see themselves as friends of exploited NTT faculty and supporters of efforts to organize them into unions.

    I think that these critics are wrong, and that their error has two important negative consequences: first, it devalues the work that NTT faculty do; and second, it impedes our understanding of one of the major successes of the “neoliberal” model - that it has been able to introduce a two-tiered faculty system in which many newer faculty are paid half or less of what the top tier is paid per class, without dramatic decline in the quality of undergraduate education that would de-legitimize the two-track system.

    To understand how this has been possible – and where the critics go wrong – we need to start by asking: What determines teaching quality? I would suggest that there are five major determinants:

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  • A Look Inside Principals' Decisions To Dismiss Teachers

    Written on February 8, 2012

    Despite all the heated talk about how to identify and dismiss low-performing teachers, there’s relatively little research on how administrators choose whom to dismiss, whether various dismissal options might actually serve to improve performance, and other aspects in this area. A paper by economist Brian Jacob, released as working paper in 2010 and published late last year in the journal Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, helps address at least one of these voids, by providing one of the few recent glimpses into administrators’ actual dismissal decisions.

    Jacob exploits a change in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) personnel policy that took effect for the 2004-05 school year, one which strengthened principals’ ability to dismiss probationary teachers, allowing non-renewal for any reason, with minimal documentation. He was able to link these personnel records to student test scores, teacher and school characteristics and other variables, in order to examine the characteristics that principals might be considering, directly or indirectly, in deciding who would and would not be dismissed.

    Jacob’s findings are intriguing, suggesting a more complicated situation than is sometimes acknowledged in the ongoing debate over teacher dismissal policy.

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  • Deprofessionalizing Higher Education

    Written on October 6, 2011

    Books criticizing higher education are gaining in popularity,  judging from the number written and published in the last year or so (see here, here, here, and here for just a few examples).  Naomi Riley’s The Faculty Lounges And Other Reasons That You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For, which I was asked to review by the publisher, has just joined these ranks.

    In her book, Riley tackles an important question facing the U.S. higher education system – that is, whether the increasing number of contingent faculty, including adjunct professors and part-time instructors, has eroded the value and quality of a university education.

    According to recent estimates, more than half of all instructional staff now consists of part-time and contingent faculty. Although some have argued that this can help to lower costs and increase flexibility, most research indicates that tenured faculty members are more effective and produce better results (e.g. greater student retention and engagement) than adjunct faculty (see here and here), leading to campaigns for more tenure-track positions. In other words, permanent tenure-track positions are seen as the “gold standard."

    Riley looks at these same trends and turns this argument on its head. Instead of advocating for an expansion of tenure-track positions, she argues that tenure itself should be abolished.

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  • For Many Teachers, Reform Means Higher Risk, Lower Rewards

    Written on September 29, 2011

    ** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

    One of the central policy ideas of market-based education reform is to increase both the risk and rewards of the teaching profession. The basic idea is to offer teachers additional compensation (increased rewards), but, in exchange, make employment and pay more contingent upon performance by implementing merit pay and weakening job protections such as tenure and seniority (increased risk). This trade-off, according to advocates, will not only force out low performers by paying them less and making them easier to fire, but it will also attract a “different type” of candidate to teaching – high-achievers who thrive in a high-stakes, high-reward system.

    As I’ve said before, I’m skeptical as to whether less risk-averse individuals necessarily make better teachers, as I haven’t seen any evidence that this is the case. I’m also not convinced that personnel policies are necessarily the most effective lever when it comes to “attracting talent," and I’m concerned that the sheer size of the teaching profession makes doing so a unique challenge. That said, I’m certainly receptive to trying new compensation/employment structures, and the “higher risk, higher reward” idea, though unproven in education, is not without its potential if done correctly. After all, teacher pay continues to lose ground to that offered by other professions, and the penalty teachers pay increases the longer they remain in the profession. At the same time, there is certainly a case for attracting more and better candidates through higher pay, and nobody would disagree that accountability mechanisms such as evaluations and tenure procedures could use improvement in many places, even if we disagree sharply on the details of what should be done.

    There’s only one problem: States and districts all over the nation are increasing risk, but not rewards. In fact, in some places, risk is going up while compensation is being cut, sometimes due to the same legislation.

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  • Be Careful What You Think The Public Thinks About Tenure

    Written on September 19, 2011

    Monmouth University polling director Patrick Murray offered this response to my criticism of how he described tenure in a recent poll of New Jersey public opinion (see my brief reply and Bruce Baker's as well).

    I’m not particularly keen on arguing about the wording of poll questions. As I stated in my original post, wordings are never perfect, and one must always take this into account when trying to interpret polling results. I took issue with Monmouth’s phrasing because it is demonstrably inaccurate, nothing more.

    But I do want to quickly add that, as is often the case, responses to poll questions about tenure are very sensitive to the nature of the description offered. A 2009 PDK/Gallup poll provides an illustration.

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  • Serious Misconduct

    Written on September 15, 2011

    A recent Monmouth University poll of New Jersey residents is being widely touted by Governor Chris Christie and his supporters as evidence that people support his education reform plans. It’s hardly unusual for politicians to ignore the limitations of polling, but I’d urge caution in interpreting these results as a mandate.

    Others have commented on how some of the questions are worded in a manner that could skew responses. These wording issues are inherent to polling, and that’s one of the major reasons why they must be interpreted carefully. But one of the questions caught my eye – the question about teacher tenure – and it’s worth quickly discussing.

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