higherEd, politics, science, teaching

Student Learning and Labor Policies, follow up

My piece for the Atlantic ran yesterday, on how student learning is not directly connected to exploitative labor policies. I had some interesting conversations, on twitter and over email, so I thought I would share those with my readers. It is also different to work with an editor for another outlet (for a broader readership) so I’ll share some thoughts related to that.

First, one of the things that was left on the cutting room floor was a more thorough treatment and context of the Northwestern paper. I think I did a better job of that on my longer blog post on the subject, but it boils down to this: the Figlio paper compared two groups of well-paid, full benefits, long-term professors. One group is more focused on research (but also teaches), and one is more singularly focused on teaching. The article was clear, but many of the press reports obscured this fact. I should have tried to use my piece to correct the erroneous suggestion by many popular press reports that these results somehow applied to adjuncts, or indicated that tenured professors were worse (than some unspecified alternative). Edward Kazarian does just that in his piece in Inside Higher Ed, and in my mind, the Chronicle should have to syndicate it and put a note at the top of their piece headlined “Adjuncts are better teachers than tenured professors, study finds.”  Here’s Kazarian:

What thereby shifts into the background — though it does not go unmentioned — may, in fact, be the most important finding reported in the paper, that this successful cohort of “non-tenure-track faculty” were not short-term temps, but rather long-term employees. Admittedly, it was also downplayed by the study’s authors. They remind their readers that Northwestern is an elite institution, and that “its ability to attract first-class non-tenure-track faculty may be different from that of most institutions.” But the only details they give about these faculty appear in a footnote, which tells us only that “[a]lmost all classes taught by non-tenure-track faculty at Northwestern are taught by those with a longer-term relationship with the university.”

In an email exchange, David Figlio also informed me that non-tenure track teachers at Northwestern (of whom well over 80% are full-time with equal benefits) also have career ladders and ranks. In the case of the college of arts and sciences ranging from lecturer to “professor of instruction.” 

So, what is going on at Northwestern is very different from what is happening in the rest of the country. What is going on at Northwestern? It is becoming a place where research and teaching are growing further apart, even if they stay within the same walls. Northwestern believes that it can forgo damage to student learning by having two groups of (well-paid, long-term, respected) faculty, one group rewarded for research and another rewarded for teaching.  I have my doubts about this as a solution to what the paper calls “a research university’s multitasking problem,” but Figlio is not advocating that switching to a part-time adjunct labor force is no cause for alarm, or that it is educationally positive, and I shouldn’t have insinuated that.

I am still annoyed at the title of their paper (“Are Tenured Track Professors Better Teachers?”) because I don’t think this actually has anything to do with tenure. Can one provide generous salaries, institutional support and long-term job stability without tenure? Northwestern seems to be trying with its lecturers. That might be an interesting experiment, but it is not about whether tenure makes one a better teacher, but whether Northwestern’s particular definition of “non-tenure” can still yield good outcomes. And it does. Good for them.


I still believe in my main point, which is that arguing over student learning outcomes as outputs of labor practices is short-sighted. Regardless of what the Northwestern paper shows, or what the previous research shows, I don’t think measuring student learning outcomes are the right lens to either see or change the injustice of the newly transformed higher education labor market.

A few commenters, both on twitter and at the Atlantic, argued that research showing how poor working conditions detract from student learning is a critical piece of the puzzle, and that leaving that research aside is naive. Here’s commenter Jonathan Kaplan, summing up that view well (but his entire comments are worth reading as well):

One reason that fact is important is that this study will get used to resist calls to treat adjuncts better. Why can’t we just make the basic moral argument you propose? Well, consider that there is, for example, an enormous literature on the role that air-conditioning plays in student learning. You suggest above that conducting that research was a pointless mistake — an immoral exercise in demanding that we come up with an explanation in terms of efficient teaching rather than thinking of not forcing children and teachers to sit in stifling classrooms as a basic condition of decent human behavior. But of course there is a reason people do those studies, and that is that this *wasn’t* seen as an issue of basic human decency, or if it was, no one cared enough to do anything about it.

A few people on twitter made similar points, arguing that I was taking important evidence off the table by not acknowledging that labor conditions DO matter for learning, and that a teacher’s working conditions are a student’s learning conditions. I was paraphrased as saying “Administrators, great news, you can pay adjuncts shit and it doesn’t matter!”

Jonathan Kaplan’s last sentence gives me a good place to begin my response. He maintains that doing these studies to document the harm done by lack of human decency is part of the path to getting change. I guess the argument is that showing these heartless technocrats our evidence that air conditioning is a vital ingredient to learning will convince them to fund it, since they haven’t seen it already as basic human decency.

I am a social scientist who believes in the value of social science. I am a scholar of teaching and learning who believes that measuring learning can help us better understand and improve it. But I just don’t think more social science is going to change people’s minds about this. I am extremely skeptical that more rigorous studies of student learning are going to document exactly how many “points” of learning a student loses when their teacher doesn’t have healthcare, or has to hold office hours out of their car. For this case, at least, I don’t see the path to justice as paved with data.

Jordan Weissman has a nice, long piece reviewing economic literature on labor policies and learning. He ends by responding to my piece, which would seem to contradict his (and others) insistence that more research is needed:

Hopefully, though, there will be more research. Cedar Reiner [sic], a psychology professor at Randolph Macon College, recently argued on this site that we shouldn’t think of education as a labor or economic issue. But higher ed is at an economic crossroads; the labor model is changing whether we like it or not, and it’s changing in ways that may limit the time and energy professors can devote to teaching, both in the classroom and out. We owe it to ourselves to find out whether that’s costing students.

I think gathering more data about the relationship between student learning outcomes is not going to help our argument that a mistreated professor is a worse teacher than a well-treated one. More information will not settle this score. Weissman ends with “we owe it to ourselves to find out whether that’s costing students” after he has reviewed a literature that converges on an answer: it does cost students. Of course it does. The only question is how much.

But if  we acknowledge this is indeed the question of interest, we are having the wrong conversation. How many learning points are we sacrificing by using short-term, part-time labor? Is it the short-term or the part-time that is important? How many learning points are we sacrificing for no health insurance? How many learning points are we sacrificing by paying only $2000 per course instead of $4,000? Then we argue over how to measure learning points.

I’ll end with two points: I happen to think that these are generally not well-framed social science questions. If we want to investigate the factors that change learning, we should investigate the causes that are more immediate. Pedagogical practices, curriculum, student motivation and other student factors, these are the things that truly matter for learning. Labor practices can only be mediated through how they impact the classroom.

But even if it were good social science, I am dubious of the power of research facts to move value-based mountains. There are massive amounts of social science documenting the damage caused by extreme stress or hunger in childhood. Social science has documented the cognitive impact of poverty, and the benefits of robust early childhood education. But this doesn’t stop Republicans from cutting food stamps or arguing about the value of Head Start. “You have your studies, I have mine.” Certainly we should do and recognize good research, but we should recognize that you can’t fight a value system that begins and ends with Ayn Rand with charts and data.

So what should we do? Organize. Give money to AAUP and the New Faculty Majority. Win elections (local, regional, state and national). Oppose exploitative labor practices not because they are ineffective (yes, which they probably are), but because they are wrong.