Memo|Education   7 Minute Read

Improving College Teaching and Learning

Published October 13, 2015

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Are your child’s college professors any good at teaching? And if they were (or weren’t), how would you know?

The federal government makes a significant effort to ensure that K-12 students have quality classroom teachers. From No Child Left Behind, which emphasized highly qualified teaching for the first time, to Race to the Top grants that encouraged states to implement new teacher evaluation systems, and the Administration’s newly-formed teacher equity plans, the federal government finds significant value in investing in high quality instruction for all. We may still have a long ways to go on the K-12 front, but we have not even begun the journey when it comes to taxpayer-subsidized colleges and universities. In fact, the federal government spends less than one-tenth of one percent of its higher education budget on teacher quality in our nation’s colleges and universities.1 Ironically, the feds spend $160 billion each year subsidizing tuition alone—more than twice what we spend annually on K-12 programs—but demands little in terms of outcomes and quality.2

Colleges have the main responsibility to oversee the quality of instruction they are providing to students, but as the largest payer of tuition in America and with dropout rates at four-year colleges hovering around 40%, the federal government has a role to play to both encourage institutions of higher education (IHEs) to prioritize better teaching and to increase transparency around the amount of learning students are receiving.3 As the debate around reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA) begins to heat up this fall, Congress has a unique opportunity to better align its emphasis on high-caliber teaching in K-12 with a similar level of commitment to that cause in post-secondary education. Here are ten ways the next HEA bill could help jump start these efforts.

1. Create a national board certification process for professors.

Just like the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) was established in the late 1980s as a way to “strengthen standards in teaching” and provide K-12 teachers with the opportunity to earn a distinguished credential for their teaching expertise, the federal government could help fund the establishment of a similar program in higher education that would create an elite tier of highly recognized and effective professors.4 Colleges and universities could provide nationally board certified professors with additional benefits, such as expedited tenure or salary bonuses, as a way to incentivize professors to further develop their instructional skills. Hopefully, colleges would seize this opportunity to make teaching quality a top tenure consideration. Similar to national boards at the K-12 level, the standards and certification process could be both designed and led by professors, and once established, board certified professors could be the ones to evaluate new applicants, becoming the arbiters of who joins their ranks.

2. Teach Ph.D. students to teach.

The focus for doctoral candidates is research and publication. That should continue. But a new focus must also help them develop the skills to be successful teachers—a large component of many Ph.D. students’ job requirements both during their program and after graduation. Right now, we simply hope that a great researcher will be a great teacher. But beyond expertise in the field, there is no reason to believe this is so. Colleges and universities should create course-level work that explicitly provides Ph.D. students with important pedagogical training. A handful of institutions—such as the University of Southern California—have already begun to integrate this type of focus into their programs.5 This should be universal and the federal government could help scale such efforts by providing funding to institutions to specifically develop teacher training curricula and programs for the Ph.D. students who are already teaching in their classrooms and those they will send out to teach at other institutions post-graduation.

3. Require colleges to design and publish an instructional improvement plan for their schools.

If it’s measured, it matters and it will improve. While the Department of Education has taken action at the K-12 level to ensure that states provide equal access to effective educators through their teacher equity plans, no such initiatives exist that asks colleges and universities to do the same. The Department of Education should require all institutions that receive federal aid to create and publish a plan that assesses the student learning outcomes generated by their instructors and outlines how it will improve instruction going forward. This should include both classroom instruction and online learning. If college presidents know that learning outcomes are measured and that results matter, they will care about the quality of the instruction at their schools to a level far higher than today.

4. Make community colleges a lab for better teaching.

Most community colleges do not require professors to complete research or get published in order to earn tenure, so particular attention should be paid so that community college professors have strong pedagogical and instructional abilities—as teaching should be their sole focus. In particular, community colleges could serve as laboratories for innovation around teaching and learning. In addition, targeting the above ideas specifically at two-year schools would pair well with recent calls for free community college by ensuring that students who participate in taxpayer-subsidized programs are actually learning.

5. Help colleges and universities tap into expertise at their schools of education.

With teacher preparation programs already established at over 600 institutions of higher education, colleges and universities have an abundance of leaders with instructional expertise located in their own backyards.6 Rather than ask colleges and universities to seek out external teacher training, the federal government could establish a demonstration project to tap into the resources that exist within their own schools of education—such as using ed school professors to train incoming professors of other subjects in a summer course or asking them to design pedagogical curriculum for the institution’s Ph.D. students who plan to teach at the college level.

6. Build in students’ rights protections against low-quality instruction.

Students pay tuition with the expectation that the classroom instruction they receive will meet a certain standard of quality. Yet under the current system, almost no recourse exists if such instruction falls short, allowing institutions to collect tuition fees regardless of whether or not they deliver on that promise. Instead, efforts should be made to give students who receive low-quality instruction the same consumer protection rights that exist with other high-stakes and high-cost purchases. This could happen through the creation of a students’ rights provision that would “trigger” a school to review professors who receive numerous complaints for poor instructional quality, or through the development of a new complaint system under the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) that would allow students to initiate a process to recoup a proportion of their tuition money if basic instructional standards are not met.

7. Institute a TIF-like program to incentivize best practices.

Over the last ­­­­­decade, federal Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grants have helped K-12 school districts around the country invest in efforts to improve educator effectiveness through the redesign of teacher-focused systems like performance-based compensation and leadership tracks.7 A similar competitive grant program could be created at the higher education level to help colleges and universities implement innovative systems to train and develop excellent professors. For example, funds could be awarded to institutions looking to pilot innovative ways to improve the quality of instruction, such as the development of a summer teaching certification program for incoming professors, the establishment of a two-track tenure system that gives professors the opportunity to focus on research or instruction, or the creation of revamped course evaluations that better measure effective teaching and student learning. As we have seen in the K-12 context, these grants can provide out-sized returns by motivating applicants to prioritize great teaching and think creatively about how to incentivize it.

8. Create a new federal teaching grant for higher education.

Each year, the federal government awards over $30 billion in grants to help colleges and universities pay for the equipment, supplies, and salaries of professors to carry out research at the post-secondary level.8 Undoubtedly, these grants provide institutions with a powerful incentive to pursue new research projects—an important and necessary aspect of our higher education system. Yet, at the same time, the federal government invests only $79 million to incentivize quality teaching at these same schools, a funding discrepancy skewed in favor of research by a ratio of nearly 400 to 1.9 While the cost to produce research is indisputably higher than the costs of developing teaching skills, the federal government could do more to emphasize the importance of good instruction through the creation of a new federal teaching grant program designed specifically for the post-secondary level. Such an investment could allow professors to apply directly for additional funding—similar to the way many must apply directly to earn research grants—to allow them to experiment with better assessments, more meaningful course evaluations, and other methods of improving student learning.

9. Require institutions to disclose the number of adjunct professors they hire.

According to a report by the American Association of University Professors, more than three-quarters of all university faculty work as part-time, or adjunct professors.10 While the verdict is still out on whether adjunct faculty are categorically more or less effective at teaching than their tenured counterparts, part-time professors are often paid less and expected to teach a variety of courses across multiple institutions during their classroom stints, leaving colleges and universities with very little incentive to develop their pedagogical abilities due to their often limited and impermanent nature.11 Until further research can conclusively determine that adjunct and tenured faculty provide students with an equal level of instructional quality, lawmakers should make permanent a 2013 House bill provision that would have required the Department of Education to publish “the ratio of the number of course sections taught by part-time instructors to the number of course sections taught by full-time faculty” in order to demonstrate the federal government’s commitment to transparency and instructional quality in higher ed.12 Congress should also require this ratio be added to the new College Scorecard, as students and their families deserve to know this information before they make one of the biggest investments of their lives.

10. Institute a National Professor of the Year award.

Similar to national board certification, the National Teacher of the Year (NTOY) program has played an integral role in increasing the prestige of the teaching profession at the K-12 level. Having a comparable program available for professors would help shine a light on the importance of instructional excellence in higher education, and raise the stature of professors who are making incredible strides with their students year after year. Such national figures could serve to provide instructional leadership with the same gravitas often reserved for those who concentrate on research, helping to bring teaching and learning back to the forefront of the national conversation surrounding the quality of higher ed.

  1. United States, Department of Education, “Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Summary and Background Information,” Budget Summary, 2015. Accessed February 19, 2015. Available at: http://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/budget/budget16/summary/16summary.pdf 56; “Federal and State Funding of Higher Education,” The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2015. Accessed September 27, 2015. Available at:  http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2015/06/federal-and-state-funding-of-higher-education.

  2. “Trends in Student Aid,” Report, College Board, 2014, p. 10. Accessed September 26, 2015. Available at: http://trends.collegeboard.org/student-aid; “Federal, State, and Local K-12 School Finance Overview,” Atlas, New America Foundation, June 29, 2015. Accessed October 6, 2015. Available at: https://atlas.newamerica.org/school-finance

  3. United States, Department of Education, “Institutional Retention and Graduation Rates for Undergraduate Students,” Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, May 2013. Accessed September 17, 2015. Available at: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cva.asp.

  4. “History,” National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, 2015. Accessed September 27, 2015. Available at: http://www.nbpts.org/history

  5. Colleen Flaherty, “More than a Postdoc,” Inside Higher Ed, September 28, 2015. Accessed September 28, 2015. Available at: http://bit.ly/1Wtrw5b

  6. Emily Richmond, “America’s Teacher-Training Programs Aren’t Good Enough,” The Atlantic, June 18, 2013. Accessed September 28, 2015. Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/06/americas-teacher-training-programs-arent-good-enough/276993/

  7. United States, Department of Education, “Teacher Incentive Fund,” July 2009. Accessed September 27, 2015. Available at: http://www2.ed.gov/programs/teacherincentive/factsheet.html

  8. “University Research: The Role of Federal Funding,” Report, Association of American Universities, January, 2011, pg 1. Accessed September 28, 2015. Available at: http://www.aau.edu/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=11588

  9. United States, Department of Education, “Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Summary and Background Information,” Budget Summary, 2015. Accessed February 19, 2015. Available at: http://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/budget/budget16/summary/16summary.pdf 56; See also “University Research: The Role of Federal Funding,” Report, Association of American Universities, January, 2011, pg 1. Accessed February 19, 2015. Available at:http://www.aau.edu/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=11588.   

  10. John W. Curtis, “The Employment Status of Instructional Staff Members in Higher Education, Fall 2011,” Report, American Association of University Professors, 2014. Accessed September 28, 2015. Available at: http://www.aaup.org/our-work/research

  11. Colleen Flaherty, “Net Zero,” Inside Higher Education, November 15, 2013. Accessed September 28, 2015. Available at: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/11/15/study-finds-no-impact-student-success-having-adjunct-instructors

  12. United States, Congress, House of Representatives, “Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act,” 113th Congress, 2nd Session, July 24, 2014. Accessed September 27, 2015. Available at:  https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/4983/text

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