The Quality of Teaching in Higher Ed

When are we going to expect teachers in our colleges and universities to meet higher standards for teaching? As we continue to work to improve education with our PK-12 teachers, we are driven by the goal of college and career readiness. I write this post not to point fingers at my college level colleagues but to provoke some thinking on the topic. Or maybe this post has just been rattling around in my head for so many years that I’ve got to get it out of my head. And I’m generalizing, I know. I’m sure in every university there are exceptions to what I’m about to write.

My son was home Sunday and Monday on a brief mid-semester break from his junior year in a private university. As we had all day to talk yesterday, I had the opportunity to ask him lots of questions about each of his classes. I frequently “interrogate” him, I’m curious and like lots of information. I realize that having this conversation with him is 50% of the story—that each of his professors would have something to say about the experience too. Having said that, and considering the enormous amount of money that we pay to this university every year, including debt that we are both taking on, I would love the chance to have a conversation with the president of his university.

Here are the questions I want to ask her.

1. As a junior on an academic scholarship in the Honors program, who has taken his requisite amount of courses each semester, why is he still wondering when he’ll get to take the marketing courses that will prepare him to be able to actually succeed in a job in marketing?

2. Why are the instructional methods that he describes so removed from our efforts in local high schools? Our teachers are jumping through continual hoops to use innovative methods, teach with 21st century skills so our students can think well, and to meet each child’s individual needs. This is a good thing.  Are college professors using similar instructional methods? Are they asking their students to engage in meaningful discussions? To analyze and to think and to challenge the thinking of others?

3. Communicating well verbally and in writing is a critical skill in virtually every profession. Are you truly teaching students how to communicate for their future careers? Because if they are still reading over-priced textbooks with the unbelievable amount of information available freely on the web and responding to the textbook chapters—you’ve got to step it up a couple of decades. Seriously.

4. For $38,000 per year to attend, I want professors who truly desire to teach, to help our son learn the necessary skills and content needed to get the very best jobs. Not professors who are teaching there because they are using it as a vehicle to study in this country, or to have time to research and publish. That’s not good enough. Teaching is a complicated, critical profession–not something you do so that you can work on what’s really important to you.

5. When I graduated from a similar local, private university in 1985 we all said that we hadn’t really learned anything to help us on the job–that all companies cared about was that we had that piece of paper with the degree listed. With how hard we’re pushing to improve public education K-12 so that our children come to you better prepared to succeed, I expect more from you too.  What are you doing to change and improve and meet the needs of our children? Because now I’m paying for it and I think that means I have a right to ask those questions. You want students who come to you college ready? Well I want a son who graduates career ready when he leaves you.

And the other thing I keep wondering about? We constantly hear about the increased percentage of children who need remedial courses when they get to college. This is definitely a complicated problem, including the NCLB changes in the schools leading most of our students to think college is the only option and then the whole mess of masses of students with college debt from one or two years at a school with no degree.  It’s also complicated by more and more parents stepping in to solve every minor problem for their children when we need parents who say “Problem Solving 101 Kid, go talk to your teacher (or counselor or principal) tomorrow and figure it out”. BUT I keep wondering if a contributing factor is that we are doing so much to engage our students, to offer assistance when needed, to support our students and families that when they get to college, there simply isn’t enough work on the part of many professors to offer better instruction.

This isn’t about one student’s experience. No college kid EVER has loved his university more than my kid loves his. It’s a great school in a million ways. I just wonder what conversations we’re having about the quality of teaching and the learning in higher education.

Bottom line? College professors should be held to similar standards as we’re holding our K-12 teachers to with expectations for better teaching. I’d really like the opportunity to evaluate college professors using Charlotte Danielson’s 2011 Rubric. Please consider holding your teachers to the Danielson standards. That would be interesting.


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