Crisis in Higher Education

By Jennifer Garvin-Sanchez, Ph.D.

Last October Time Magazine devoted the cover and much of an entire issue to “Reinventing Higher Education.”  According to a survey sponsored by TIME and the Carnegie Corporation, 89 percent of U.S. adults and 96 percent of senior administrators at colleges and universities said higher education is in crisis, and nearly four in 10 in both groups considered the crisis to be “severe.” TIME had gathered more than 100 college presidents and other experts to talk about the biggest problems facing higher education, which U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan summed up as “high prices, low completion rates, and too little accountability.” 
     High prices were blamed on competition for fancy gyms and buildings, and the cost of hiring high-profile faculty. However, I doubt that anyone assembled there mentioned that most members of the faculty at our public institutions are not high-profile faculty earning high salaries, but adjunct faculty earning barely a living wage. According to a new report 76% of the faculty in undergraduate education at public universities is now adjunct.  (see .) Also unnoted was the decrease in public support for higher education, which has been declining for years.
Is college worth it?
Time also conducted a web based poll in early October that focused on the rising cost of college tuitions, student debt (an average of $25,250 for graduates in 2010), and the lack of jobs for graduates. These questions then led to the last inquiry:  is a college education worth the price?  Eighty percent of U.S. adults answered that at many colleges, the cost of the education students receive is not worth it.
     As an adjunct instructor at a large public university, I see these poll responses reflected in my classrooms. I have students who work full time, take full-time course loads, and do internships or service learning.  How can they possibly find time to study?  They can’t.  As a result academic standards are suffering.  If they aren’t working full time, they are in debt.
     Even working full-time students find their jobs cover only living expenses, requiring them to borrow to pay for tuition.  The national student debt load has now reached over one trillion dollars, compared by some sources to the sub-prime mortgage crisis – the next big bubble about to break. This debt not only slows economic growth, it limits the ability of graduates to follow their dreams, forcing them to opt for the highest paying jobs available. Researchers have found that student debt now amounts to 8% of all U.S. household debt, up from 3% as recently as 2007.  This is at a time when 53% of college graduates under age 25 are either unemployed or underemployed in jobs that don’t require a college degree.
     What most “experts” are missing is that universities are increasingly being asked to do the impossible: to graduate more students ready for a job market that has crashed, and to do it with less and less resources. Between 2000 and 2010, funding per student for higher education from states and localities fell by 21%. This followed decades of disinvestment in higher education. No wonder there have been massive tuition hikes.
Faculties going part time
To balance their increasingly tight budgets, universities have responded as other “businesses” have over the last 40 years – by hiring fewer full-time employees to save costs of salaries and benefits.  Most people are familiar with the system of tenure for professors, a system which protects academic freedom from political and social repercussions, and so most people mistakenly think that most faculty are tenure track professors.  But the time when this was the case has long gone.  Universities now mostly hire part-time adjunct instructors.
     In 1970, only 22% of college faculty was part-time. Today almost three-quarters of the faculty teaching undergraduates are part-time instructors – working in jobs that are low-pay, have no job security, and offer no benefits. In this system no one benefits, neither the teachers nor the students.
     Adjuncts train 5 to 10 years to earn a Ph.D., for which they should be compensated in relation to the cost of acquiring such an education.  But adjuncts work as contract employees, paid a set amount for each course taught, in my case $2,550 per course. (To see salaries across the nation see ).  
Pay low, benefits lower 
Just so you can get an idea of what adjuncts teaching a full teaching load make, I’ll break the taboo about talking about money and tell you what I make. In 2010 I made $18,135 teaching three courses in the Spring and Fall semesters and one in the summer. That translated into $1,650 every month after taxes during semesters.  Of course, in December, July and August I made no income at all.  Still, 2010 was not a bad year for me. 2009 was much worse, because in both the Spring and Fall semesters I taught only two courses each semester and so took home only $13,035. 
     Even worse than the low compensation for adjuncts is the lack of job security. We work from semester to semester with no annual contract, not knowing how many courses we can count on for income. Then of course, there is the serious problem of not having any benefits – no health insurance and no retirement through our jobs. Health insurance alone eats over a quarter of my paycheck each month.  Apparently as the Affordable Health Care Act becomes effective in 2014, state schools will be required to provide health care for adjuncts such as myself who teach 3 courses a semester, and have done so for years, without healthcare. That means that schools (remember 76% of instructors are now adjuncts) will either be forced to lower the amount of courses people can teach if they are adjunct, or pay for health care for massive amounts of people. This means that by 2014 state universities are facing a ticking time bomb, as we now are the majority of instructors. Will we all be laid off? Will they find the money to provide for health care for all of us? Will they lower the amount of courses we can teach, making it impossible to live off of teaching?
Universities act as businesses
I believe the reason most universities hire adjuncts is that they have fallen into the trap of thinking of the university as a business. In order to grow as other businesses, we need more students (consumers who purchase our services) and businesses who purchase the end product (graduated students), and we need to graduate them at cheaper production rates.  How do we lower production costs at a university?  Hire more adjuncts, and don’t worry about whether we are graduating educated citizens who can think for themselves.  We have to worry about creating products for the job market, which means paying attention to business schools, engineering schools, computer sciences, etc., while giving the humanities short shrift.
     But the university is not a business like any other.  The purpose of a university is not simply to produce students for the job market (although that should be one of the results), but to create and produce knowledge, to stimulate new ideas and thinking, and to provide a space for scholarly research that contributes to the betterment of all of humankind, as well as to pass on this knowledge and research to future generations.
     Most of the solutions to the crisis in higher education cited by the experts rely on new technology to save higher education.  The rise in MOOC’s, massive open online courses, is supposed to save universities hundreds of thousands of dollars because they will be able to teach thousands through the work of a small number of super-star professors.
     But while they skimp on faculty, universities are building bigger and fancier buildings to keep up with the “competition,” as administrators pointed out. Meanwhile the number of non-faculty professionals has mushroomed nearly 240 percent, growing more than three times as fast as the faculty. Coaching staff and salaries have grown astronomically. The size of presidential salaries rivals that of business CEOs, more than $1 million in several dozen cases.
     Universities must reverse this disastrous trend, and a good start would be to begin treating adjuncts as essential employees to be compensated in relationship to the essential nature of their work, with job security and adequate benefits.
     What would that mean for the university and students?  One of the most direct benefits would be a more stable faculty with instructors having time and energy to plan and prepare well for their courses.  There would be less turnover among adjunct faculty, which would mean better teaching.  Students learn best when they develop relationships with their teachers, and these relationships most often are fostered outside of the classroom with faculty who are on campus.  As the system works now, adjuncts gain experience and then leave, taking that experience with them.  
     These steps might raise education costs, but whether that would mean tuition increases would depend on whether there is political will to fund higher education through state and local budgets.
     We can fix higher education, but only if we reverse the current trends.  There is no reason for public education to be free only through the 12th grade.  We have raised the level of publicly financed education in the past; we can raise it again.  The only ones benefiting from this system are again, you guessed it, the banks who are lending money for student loans. If students are to be able to really learn, the burden of expensive tuition and debt must be lifted from their shoulders and the relationship between teacher and student restored. 

High Stakes Tests Are Poor Motivators

by Amy Peterson, Latin Teacher, Chesterfield Education Association
     Reposted from the Virginia Journal of Education, June 2013
            There are two ways to motivate people, by threatening and punishing them or by valuing and empowering them.  My recent leap into the issue of standardized testing has fostered a heightened awareness of how one's method of motivation can have significant effects on people.  Both methods can achieve a particular desired outcome, such as raising scores on a test, but each has drastically differing companion consequences.  It is my belief that motivating primarily through fear results in negative consequences that long outlive the achievement of the desired outcome.  Cultivating a culture of respect and united purpose, on the other hand, produces lasting positive benefits to both the motivator and the motivated.  The fact that current education reform is heavily based on threats and punishment through the form of high-stakes testing dooms it to failure.  There may be some small short-term gains in test scores, but the long-term consequences from eroding morale, high levels of stress, and restricted passion for learning are already starting to be noticed.
            My awareness of the issues surrounding high-stakes testing came late in the game since I must admit that I do not teach a subject with an SOL test.  Last year, I attended some discussion meetings on the issue of standardized testing and was overwhelmed with compassion for all who were subjected to its mandates.  The changes I had been noticing in my students and colleagues started to make more sense the more I heard at these meetings.  I brought the issue to the attention of our PTSA and one year later a movement has begun.  With the help of dedicated parents, teachers and the VEA, the Citizens Standardized Testing Forum was born.  The group has its own Facebook page and hosts regular meetings to help the community understand and react to the negative consequences of high-stakes standardized testing. 
            In the meetings I have heard the laments of parents with special needs children, the concerns of teachers who feel that testing now dominates their classroom, the frustrations of college professors with students who are hesitant to think for themselves, the challenges of employers having trouble finding workers who can problem solve and think creatively, and the cry of students longing to be challenged in more meaningful and useful ways.  All this has prompted me to react, not just in the role of advocate, but also in the way I work with my own students. 
            To work out my frustrations, I have been making a conscious effort to respond with an equal but opposite reaction within my classroom.  As the attacks on public education have increased, I have made it a greater priority to notice and vocally appreciate the merits of my students.  I take pains to show that I care about each one of them and believe in their greatness.  As mandates increase, I work harder to capitalize on the autonomy I still have left.  I try to find more ways to employ the various talents of my students so that they feel valued.  I also offer my students more opportunities to take control of their own learning.  As students are forced to spend more time testing, I have been decreasing the number of traditional tests I give in favor of alternative assessments that teach the soft skills as well as the hard facts.  When I am run down with boredom from proctoring tests, I dream up ways to make learning more fun and meaningful.  As a result, my students have flourished, each in his or her own way.  I end my days in the classroom energized and eager for the next class.  Even though my focus is on the bigger picture beyond what is on a particular test, my students' performance has improved as a natural by-product. 

            If you are feeling demoralized by standardized testing, I encourage you to battle the negatives with positive counter forces.  Take control by evaluating yourself rather than letting the system do all your evaluating.  Find areas where you can allow more creativity and autonomy for your students.  Think of ways you can bring the love of learning back into your classroom.  Make an effort to find the good in every student and heap on the praise.  Establish ways for them to take their talents to a new level.  Encourage them to take risks so that they may learn from failure rather than learn to fear it.  Prove that one can have high standards and hold others accountable through love just as easily as through fear, but with better results.  Show what motivating through positive means looks like.  Then share your methods with others and advocate for an educational system that leaves students and educational professionals empowered and valued rather than full of fear and stress.

Flipping the Script: A New Proposal for Teacher Merit Pay

by Gabriel A. Reich, Assistant Professor, 
Virginia Commonwealth University, Department of Teaching and Learning.

What makes a school strong? Is it the sum of the work that individuals do to achieve a narrow but measureable goal? Or is the strength of a school more than the sum of its parts? Perhaps, strong schools are those where educators engage in a diverse array of work individually and in concert with others to achieve goals that are valued by education policy makers, and by local communities.
For over a decade, policy makers have taken the former approach. They have defined the problem in our nation’s schools as a lack of concerted effort to raise student achievement test scores. With the diagnoses of widespread malingering, the solution has been to coerce educators to work harder and better, using policy instruments that punish schools for failure to make annual yearly progress (AYP) under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. These policies have failed to garner the results they promised, however. A look at data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP - indicates that the turn towards high-stakes accountability based on test score data over a decade ago has not had the transformative effect policy makers promised.
Recently, policy makers have added a carrot to NCLB’s stick-based approach, implementing teacher-merit-pay schemes that reward teachers for the “value” they have added to students. In other words, teacher’s merit is based on the test-score gains made by their students (see the RTSJposition on teacher merit pay).
Neither of the approaches mentioned above are based on a sound understanding of what makes a school strong. A new proposal for a system to recognize and reward teachers by University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky, reframes the debate in a powerful way. The foundation of Dr. Smagorinsky’s approach is an understanding that good schools are more than merely the sum of the work done by those who work there. His proposed merit pay system is set up to recognize and reward teachers for the diverse qualities that they bring, while being realistic about the possibility that any one teacher will have all these qualities. They won’t, but good school leaders know that having people on board who can fulfill these various roles is key to having a healthy school. Good school leaders also know that having a healthy school is key to recruiting and retaining the best professionals.
The proposal suggests that teachers be recognized and rewarded for excellence in one or more of the following areas: connecting experiential learning with academic learning, engaging with students outside class, making demonstrable efforts to learn more about teaching, being sensitive to the needs of the school’s population, making school a safe and supportive place, developing programs and curriculum, linking the school to the community, and promoting academic achievement. Each of these areas is briefly described below.
Connecting experiential learning with academic learning
Students clamor for school experiences that connect with the world outside school, especially those that connect with the world of work. Programs that do so effectively make for wonderful media stories, but the teachers who do this work can be marginalized because the courses they teach are not assessed using standardized tests. Under some merit pay systems, teachers’ merit is assessed based on test scores in courses that they did not teach. Assessing teachers on their ability to implement rich experiential learning that connects students to the world outside of school would provide an incentive, and recognition for vocational programs that are crucial for keeping students engaged in school and prepared for life beyond it.
Engaging with students outside class
Schools need teachers who engage with students outside class. These teachers get to know students in ways that they cannot in the classroom. They get to see students who may not shine in class, shine in other contexts. These teachers make schools safer, they talk to students and know what is going on, and can intervene in situations before they get out of control. These teachers get things done, things like the school year book, special events, clubs and sports teams. In short, the things that make schools places that teachers and students want to be in.
Making demonstrable efforts to learn more about teaching
Good, healthy schools, have a culture that supports professional learning. Encouraging and rewarding teachers for engaging with powerful professional learning is crucial to improving the quality of education offered at a particular school. Under this plan, teachers would be rewarded for completing National Board Certification, or obtaining a masters or PhD in their academic discipline. Teachers would also be recognized for internal efforts to improve their practice through professional learning communities, and action research.
Being sensitive to the needs of the school’s population
Accountability policies as they exist today were written and passed by a broad coalition because they promised to hold teachers accountable for ALL students learning the same material.  This approach has two problems, it equates equity with sameness, and it promotes a standardized curriculum that is laden with class and cultural values that are not shared by all students. Thus, for some students, schools reinforce what they experience at home. For other students, schools present very different expectations. Being sensitive to the needs of a particular school’s population should not be seen as codifying the idea that less should be expected from some children. Teachers who make special efforts to reach the children that they work with should be recognized and rewarded.
Making school a safe and supportive place
School climate is an issue that affects the health of an entire institution, including students, staff, teachers and administrators. Unfortunately, too many of our schools are not viewed as safe and supportive by many. The overwhelming ethos of competition, with winners and losers defined largely by performance on standardized exams, has undermined the role of schools as places where students are free to explore, to ask questions, to make mistakes and learn from them. For many low-income students, school is characterized by strict, and largely ineffective disciplinary procedures. Keeping schools safe and supportive is the job of the entire institution, not any one group within it. Teachers who expend extra effort to ensure that their schools are safe and supportive should be recognized and rewarded for these efforts. They help to build trust between students, administrators, parents, teachers and staff.
Developing programs and curriculum
In many schools, teachers have lost the autonomy to develop programs and curricula. This is a key area, however, for attracting and keeping really good teachers. They want to learn more, they want to make changes from year to year, they enjoy talking about curriculum, and they want personal autonomy in their work. In terms of the overall health of a school, it may be the collaborative efforts at program and curriculum development that have the greatest positive effects. I learned how to teach in a Professional Learning Community. These are internal, and inexpensive to run, and they are the best way to build the professional capacity of a school.
Linking the school to the community
I remember reading about the importance of making schools sites for community engagement when I was a doctoral student. I was doing  research on the issue and walking the stacks at the library when I found a pamphlet from 1932 whose title was something like: Schools as Community Centers. It advocated for the use of school buildings as community centers after the hours of instruction. Almost 100 years later, this still sounds like a novel idea. Linking the school to the community makes schools safe places, places that parents and kids can trust. Teachers can and should be part of that transformation, and their work towards it should be recognized and rewarded. Today, much of this work is neither recognized, nor rewarded, and it is done by teacher-volunteers after their contracted hours.  
Promoting academic achievement
Everyone wants to promote academic achievement, but few can agree on what that looks like. Standardized tests have been adopted as the measure of academic achievement, despite evidence that the tests currently in use measure a very limited array of student skills and knowledge. In addition, the state-of-the-art in educational measurement is no-where near good enough to significantly widen what is measured. Thus, promotion of academic achievement for the purposes of assigning merit pay should use multiple measures of such achievement. If we want to get serious about “data driven instruction” we will need to have a more nuanced understanding of what test data mean, and more autonomy for teachers in regards to interpreting these data and devising plans to address needs.
We have constructed policies that homogenize education at a mediocre level. These policies may have forced some grossly incompetent teachers to improve, but they have also stymied the efforts of excellent teachers. Dr. Smagorinsky’s proposal addresses this problem in a very smart way. It is focused on making schools places where good teachers are encouraged and rewarded for striving for greatness. As such, I believe it represents a move towards balancing accountability with autonomy, and skepticism with trust.

October 19 Curriculum Fair: Call for Workshop Proposals

TSJ Curriculum Fair
October 19, 2013
Holton Elementary School
Richmond, Virginia

Richmond Teachers for Social Justice is a group of educators and allies dedicated to creating a just, democratic, sustainable and caring society through education, solidarity and social action. Our membership includes public and private PK-12 teachers, pre-service teachers, university faculty, adult educators, parents, students, community workers and anyone interested in working for social justice in education.

The Richmond Teachers for Social Justice is seeking proposals for its first Curriculum Fair to be held Saturday, October 19, 2013 at Holton Elementary School, 1600 West Laburnum Avenue, Richmond, VA  23227.

We are seeking proposals for 90-minute presentations.  Each presentation should be participatory in nature, with at least 30 of the 90 minutes designed for an interactive activity. All workshops should include at least some inquiry based, participatory, and/or interactive components.  Each presentation should address one or more of the following:  Promoting democracy; multi-cultural education; social, racial or economic justice.  

We are seeking instructional strategies that work at all educational levels from early childhood to post-secondary.  We encourage content that will meet the diverse needs of all students: cultural, economic, language, learning, special needs.  We also strongly encourage presentations that address community, family, and school engagement.

·      Concurrent sessions will be one hour and thirty minutes in length.
·      Sessions may be offered more than once during the Fair.
·      Preference will be given to proposals that are interactive in nature.
·      Please type or print clearly.
·      The title and description should accurately reflect the content, activities, and outcomes of your session.
·      Submit a one-page document that describes your workshop in detail, including the activities that will be used and the issues that will be addressed.
·      Provide a 50-word description that can be used in the program.

Deadline for submitting proposals is September 9, 2013.
Presenters will be notified in mid-September whether they have been chosen to present at the Curriculum Fair.

Email for a proposal form

Come August, Come Freedom

Leading the Resistance
by Paul Fleisher
Come August, Come Freedom:  The Bellows, the Gallows and the Black General Gabriel by Gigi Amateau, Candlewick Press, September 2012, ISBN978-0-7636-4792-6 (Ages 12-up)

            One of the least-known stories from our nation’s history is that of the widespread Black resistance to enslavement.  From the very beginnings of European settlement of the new world, Africans and their descendants fought against the cruelties of slavery with every means available to them: work slowdowns and sabotage; escape from plantations to native settlements or communities of free Maroons hidden in the wilderness; and even desperate acts of suicide and infanticide.
            Young Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds need to hear these stories, to gain a more complete understanding of our shared history, as well as the current state of our union.  Richmond author Gigi Amateau has bravely taken up this task with her new historical novel for young people, Come August, Come Freedom.  Amateau tells the story of the enslaved Gabriel, who lived just outside Richmond, Virginia.  Gabriel, a skilled blacksmith, learned to read and write as a child.   As a young man, he was inspired by stories of the American patriots who had recently rebelled against the English king, as well as contemporary reports of the Black general Toussaint L’Ouverture and his successful revolution against the French slavemasters of Haiti.  In 1800, with the support of his beloved Nan and a small core of family members and others from neighboring farms, Gabriel planned a daring armed rebellion to win freedom.  He secretly began forging swords and other weapons.  He and his followers would seize arms from local armories, capture Virginia’s governor, James Monroe, and demand freedom for the enslaved people of Virginia.  Their motto was “Death or Liberty.”
His smithy’s craft enabled Gabriel to move throughout central Virginia, as he “hired out” to various farms and plantations.  As he traveled, he recruited people to his cause.  Eventually, hundreds of recruits were ready to follow him.  Gabriel believed poor whites and Native Americans would also join the rebellion once it began.  Had it not been for the confusion created by torrential rain and flooding on the assigned day of the revolt, Gabriel’s scheme might very well have succeeded.  Instead, the plan was postponed and betrayed.  More than two dozen of the plotters, including Gabriel himself, were captured and hanged.    
Amateau imagines Gabriel’s life from infancy through its violent end.  Her storytelling is historically accurate and detailed.  Much of the book centers on Gabriel’s love for Nan, a worker enslaved at a neighboring plantation.  These sections provide the deepest glimpse into Gabriel as a person.  Unfortunately, there is almost no remaining record of his actual words.  Gabriel must surely have been a powerful, charismatic leader, but Amateau imagines less of this aspect of his character than we might like.
Although she is writing for young people, Amateau doesn’t hide the brutalities of slavery.  The story she tells includes beatings and floggings, the hunger and deprivation enslaved people were forced to endure, the sale and separation of families, and even references to slave breeding and the threat of rape by white slaveholders.  Her story will help young readers understand that surviving such abuse was a regular part of the lives of enslaved people.  Amateau chooses her words carefully—for example, she rarely uses the term slave but rather identifies Africans as the people or bondsmen.   Although Gabriel and Nan’s story is brutal and tragic, Amateau manages to tell it in terms suitable for adolescent readers—at least those willing to face the painful facts of our nation’s history.   Historical documents—some authentic, some imagined—interspersed throughout the text help complete the story.  And her writing turns lyrical at times, as she describes the natural beauties of the James River, and the hills and fields where the enslaved people find respite.
Come August, Come Freedom tells an important American story, in an honest and uncompromising way that will touch the hearts and open the eyes of many young readers.  Amateau’s new novel should generate some challenging, and much needed discussions in our country’s living rooms and classrooms.