Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sunday Commentary: Are K-12 and Higher Ed Teaching as Different as we Think?

by Corey Bunje Bower

I've been a student and a teacher in both K-12 and University classrooms. And here's what strikes me: they're far more similar than most care to admit, and they usually differ in all the wrong ways.

That the rhetoric surrounding K-12 schooling and Higher Ed are so different never ceases to amaze me. If a K-12 teacher says a student can't hack it, they're making excuses; if a college professor says a student can't hack it, they don't belong in college. Countless commentators opine against the evil that is teacher tenure in K-12 schools; few protest tenure for professors in our colleges and universities. If a K-12 student fails, it's the teacher's fault; if a college student fails, it's the student's fault. Measuring the "quality" of individual K-12 teachers is vitally important; measuring the quality of college professors isn't really possible.

Some of this is deserved. For example, most K-12 students are minors and most college students are (legally) adults. But we often view the two worlds as far more different than they actually are. The most troubling part in this is that a lot of the ed policy wonks are college professors who seemingly fail to see the commonalities.

Here are a few lessons that each group should learn from the other:

What K-12 Should Learn from Higher Ed:

Just because somebody is smart doesn't mean they'll be a good teacher
Most college professors are, to some extent, experts in their field. But how many are awful teachers? A lot. Teaching well requires some level of intellect and knowledge, but also a great deal more. Hiring smart people is a good goal, but the solution will never be that simple.

Gaining tenure should be meaningful
Most college professors serve for six years and undergo some sort of evaluation looking at their research, their teaching, and their service before earning tenure (the precise standards and who does the reviewing varies widely, but review processes are usually fairly rigorous). Too many K-12 schools award tenure to teachers after three years based on little to no evidence that somebody should teach for the rest of their life. Unions take a lot of flack for protecting tenured teachers that have upset a school's administration, but a school's administration should also be more careful about choosing who earns tenure -- our schools will be left with better teachers to protect.

All problems should not be blamed on teachers
When a college student fails, they usually take most of the blame: they didn't study enough, spent too much time partying, etc. When a K-12 student fails, the teacher takes the brunt of the blame: they should've taught more engaging lessons, called home, etc. The truth in both cases lies somewhere in between. Which means that students in K-12 schools should accept some of the responsibility when things don't go well.


What Higher Ed Should Learn from K-12

Good teaching requires good pedagogy
I had a professor who compared his experiences teaching K-12 and teaching college. When he was teaching K-12, he said, he had to plan out a million things. But when teaching college "I just profess" he said -- "it's completely different." I liked the guy, but I have to disagree with his strategy. Good teaching requires good pedagogy, regardless of what age one is teaching. College professors should still model what they expect their students to do; they should still have clear expectations; they should still plan out the flow of a class, write rubrics, and a million of the other things that K-12 teachers see as second nature.

Teachers value autonomy
College professors can't do whatever they want whenever they want, but they certainly have more leeway than people in most other jobs. At the same time, many K-12 reforms nowadays take autonomy away from teachers. This isn't always necessarily a bad thing, but professors should know better than to expect K-12 teachers to willingly embrace this. Few things in ed policy irk me more than when a college professor attempts to implement a reform and, then, blames teachers when they won't do things exactly as they were told. We have a word to describe those who do this: hypocrite. Imagine that a new Dean came strolling into a college and told all professors that they must run every class a certain way (or, let's say, turn in a written lesson plan a week in advance of every class); an uprising would ensue. And it's only natural that K-12 teachers resent any attempt to manage their work from above as well.

All problems should not be blamed on students
A K-12 student doesn't fail simply because they're a bad person -- and the same applies to college students.

A quality education requires a team effort
Colleges and Universities are divided and sub-divided in a million different ways, and each unit plays a particular role. If everybody does their part, everything should work just fine. Except that there's always a weak link -- not to mention needs for which the institution neglected to plan. For example, professors can't just say that it's not their job to teach writing and hand out bad grades -- somebody, somewhere, has to teach students how to write or else the institution fails. Staff members in the most successful K-12 schools help out with all sorts of things above and beyond their technical call of duty -- and the same is true of colleges and universities.


Conclusion

K-12 and higher ed are, of course, different. Students have more choice over which college (if any) they attend. Students are obviously much older in college. Teachers and professors have different expectations placed on them. But being a good professor and being a good teacher are more similar than most care to admit. In the end, it's all about doing whatever it takes to ensure that students learn. And that's something we should keep in mind.

______________________________________________________
Corey Bunje Bower is a Ph.D. student in education policy at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. Before beginning his studies he taught sixth grade at a low-performing middle school in the Bronx that has since been shuttered. His research focuses on issues surrounding high-poverty urban schools -- including teacher retention, discipline, and school climate.

Sunday Commentary is a running feature on Thoughts on Education Policy. Submissions are open to all who are knowledgeable about education and willing to write a concise, thoughtful piece. Submissions may be sent to corey[at]edpolicythoughts.com.

6 comments:

Michael said...

All problems should not be blamed on teachers

That should read "Not all problems should be blamed on teachers." At least, I presume you didn't mean that no problems should be blamed on teachers, which is the meaning of what you wrote.

Yes, my students occasionally find me pedantic.

Rachel said...

I've taught both high school and college and one of the fundamental differences is that K-12 teachers are expected to teach students how to learn. College students are expected to have learned how to learn, so college faculty only need to present material.

But one of the missing pieces of most discussion of K-12 teaching is the question of how difficult teaching someone how to learn can be -- particularly if that someone has decided that they are not really interested in learning.

turducken said...

Actually, there are quite a few folks who advocate for the abolition of tenure at the collegiate level (including some who have tenure). The discussion isn't as prominent, however.

I also think people who study pedagogy, SOTL, etc. at the higher ed level don't agree with the baseline assumptions laid out at the beginning of your piece, but those folks tend to be a minority.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Michael: I'm not sure that's what the phrase means, but your phrasing is better -- I'll change it.

Rachel: I disagree with the assumption that some make that college students have learned how to learn. Sure, they're better at learning than first graders -- but that doesn't mean that just throwing a bunch of information at them is all that effective.

Td: I could have phrased it better, but I tried to say that far fewer people are adamantly opposed to tenure in higher ed. Also, what baseline assumptions? I'm confused.

turducken said...

By baseline assumptions, I meant:
If a K-12 teacher says a student can't hack it, they're making excuses; if a college professor says a student can't hack it, they don't belong in college. Countless commentators opine against the evil that is teacher tenure in K-12 schools; few protest tenure for professors in our colleges and universities. If a K-12 student fails, it's the teacher's fault; if a college student fails, it's the student's fault. Measuring the "quality" of individual K-12 teachers is vitally important; measuring the quality of college professors isn't really possible.

I should have just said "rhetoric." I didn't mean to imply they were YOUR assumptions.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Ok. I was trying to describe the prevailing rhetoric, with which I would expect that many would disagree.