Month: February 2014

De-corporatizing education

sabrina_stevens

Sabrina Stevens

In mid-January a new organization called Integrity In Education was launched with the goal of “exposing the corporate and profit-motivated influences working to control public education across the country.”
Funded initally by donations from a diverse group of wealthy individuals (including philanthropist Deborah Sagner) and grassroots supporters, the group has filed Freedom of Information Act requests, calling on the Department of Education to disclose “all associations with profit-driven corporations, who have worked to exclude everyday Americans from important decisions about our children, our schools, and our future while raising public fears of a corporate takeover of public education.”
Teacher-turned-activist Sabrina Stevens is the organization’s executive director. She spoke about what Integrity In Education hopes to achieve.

What drove you to become part of this organization?
I was a teacher. I’ve wanted to teach for my whole career. I did summer programs and after-school programs with kids in Chester, Pa. It’s a low income struggling district that, a couple of years ago, went bankrupt, and teachers had to volunteer to work for free to keep the schools open.
That’s where I got my start. We did some pretty cool things to get kids to learn. You have to be good at hiding the academic part of what you are doing to get kids to actually volunteer to come after school and during their summer break in order to learn something. And that’s what I thought I got hired to do when I later became a classroom teacher in Denver.
But what I found in Denver was that being in a school designated as failing under No Child Left Behind is a really intense experience.

In what way?
I had the same bias a lot of people do going in. I thought, “This is a struggling school. It must be hard to get good teachers. I’ll be part of the solution. I’ll go and be one of those good teachers in the bad school that needs it.”
But when I got there I realized it wasn’t a bad school. There are no bad teachers here. These are great, committed people who are in a really bad situation. The culture was all about test scores, everything was about numbers, even when those numbers didn’t actually mean anything to our students or about our students.
I would be the one to ask questions: “Why are we doing this? Why would we spend time on this instead of that?” I’m not the sort of person to complain about things in the teachers’ lounge. If something is worth complaining about it’s something worth fixing, so let’s fix it.”

And that got you in trouble?
I had no idea that there was so much politics going into this. It was another whole education finding that out. After a couple of years of this I decided to leave. I didn’t like what was happening to my practice. I didn’t like what was happening to my health. I needed to take a year off and get myself back together. But in the course of making this decision, we still had evaluations. I had never had a bad evaluation. And yet, when I got this evaluation back, there were a lot of high scores as before, but there were also comments about me having trouble with authority and so on. They decided to reject my resignation and non-renew my contract “for cause,” which meant that I’d be ineligible to work anywhere else in the district. I’d be banned.
I decided to try to fight it at the school board level and when I got there I found there were literally hundreds of other teachers in the exact same position. I thought I had been alone, but it turned out to be a districtwide problem.

How did you become the face of Integrity In Education?
I had been talking to other teachers about their experiences, and writing about my own experiences. I was networking and organizing with parents who were trying to stop school closures. I’ve been in the classroom. I’ve worked with grassroots organizations. I’ve worked with unions.
I’ve had a lot of experience working in pretty much every type of organization that works on “our side,” if you will. They chose me because I can bridge a number of the different parts of a movement to be really nimble and effective.

It must feel like David going up against Goliath.
Oh, absolutely. We’re taking on people who had professional media trainers, and bookers and PR professionals, and all these other people at their disposal. We don’t have that. We just have our wit and our belief that we have to do this. When all is said and done, I feel I have no other choice. The thing I loved most—being in the classroom—was ruined for me. And it’s being ruined for so many people, especially for those of us who still believe in teaching as a lifelong profession and not a pit stop on the way to better things.
What does it mean for future generations of students if they are never taught by people who understand how people learn, who have a passion for creating the kinds of learning experiences that really awaken students’ creativity and curiosity and all these things that we know they’re going to need as they progress through their future? That’s a scary thing.
There’s a saying that teaching is a profession that makes all other professions possible. What happens when teaching is not a profession? Whatever scary things that could happen can’t compare to the scary thing that will happen if we don’t stand up.

You’ve filed FOIA requests with the Department of Education. What do you hope to learn?
The goal is to give people information they can use to be informed advocates. There’s a lot of confusion over who is funding what. Why are we getting these kinds of education policies? Why do we see these profit-driven things happening—the over-testing, the scripted curriculum, and so on?
You can speculate about deals made over a friendly dinner, but we don’t really know for sure what’s going on until we actually look at whatever evidence we can get hold of. That’s an example of what Integrity In Education will do. I think truth is a really powerful tool.
But it’s of no use to anyone if we can’t get as many people as possible talking to their neighbors, blogging and writing and speaking—talking about what it really means to have school choice. We want to take on some of the disinformation that’s out there and then arm people with real information so they can make informed decisions.

You mention school choice. But that’s the same phrase the other side uses. They want to give parents a choice of where to send their kids. How do you differentiate the meanings?
What we’re talking about is giving the community a voice. This whole “choice” conversation happens against the backdrop of people fighting for decades to have schools adequately funded, to have a culturally responsive and full curriculum. People have been asking for that for a long time, yet their requests go unheeded.
Suddenly there’s a crisis in the schools, and the solution is to let everybody choose what they want?
But in many communities “choice” isn’t really a choice. You have a school that’s being forcibly shut down and given away to someone else. It doesn’t serve the kids who were originally there. We want to be able to expose that sort of thing. We want to have an honest conversation about what school choice means.
School isn’t shopping. It makes me cringe when I hear people like Jeb Bush say, “You can go to the market and get milk in any flavor you want. You can get milk without lactose and you can get chocolate milk and all these other things. Why shouldn’t going to school be like that?” Because education isn’t milk. In order to really learn, you have to develop relationships with people.
What we should be talking about is making sure the community is heard and respected when they say, “We don’t have enough books in this school,” or “the building is crumbling over here. We need you to do something about that.” The district can’t just pivot and dodge it by saying, “Well you can choose to go to another school.” That’s not okay, because eventually there are no more places to run.

Let me play devil’s advocate here. School funding is getting cut by states everywhere. But people like Bill Gates come along and say, “I’m providing money to fill in for what’s missing.” What’s wrong with that?
The idea that we’re cutting funds to schools and then giving tax breaks to giant corporations is, to me, inappropriate.
School money isn’t disappearing. It’s not like there was a rain cloud that all of a sudden took away the school budget. No. Somebody made a decision that they need to unmake so we can do right by our kids.
Private philanthropy supplanting public investment is dangerous, because we can’t let fundamental services like the education of children be left to the whims of a wealthy fundraiser.

Unintended consequences: The rise—and fall—of adjuncts in higher education

Adrianna Kezar

Adjunct faculty have long played a supporting role in higher education. These often overqualified professors work long hours for comparatively little pay, on the hope that it might lead to a full-time position. But somewhere along the way, the
situation changed.
University of Southern California Rossier School of Education Professor Adrianna Kezar, co-director of the Pullias Center on Higher Education, studies the use of adjunct professors, and the working conditions surrounding their employment.
“Initially, part-time teachers were popular because they brought real-world experience to the classroom,” she says. But things are different today. Many adjuncts are overworked, teaching multiple classes in two or more institutions in a day, without healthcare or job security.
Kezar, who was herself an adjunct early in her career, spoke about the impact that adjuncts, now the majority instructors at many schools, have on our education system.

Tell us about your research into the plight of adjuncts.
We are looking into several areas. One involves how working conditions shape the performance of both full- and part-time adjuncts and their ability to create student learning. This ties into another area that synthesizes everything we know about adjuncts that has been written in the past 25 years. There is quite a bit of research to suggest that the increase in adjuncts lowers graduation rates and retention rates. It has an impact on first- to second-year retention, because adjuncts are heavily represented in first-year introductory courses. It also impacts remedial education as well as student interest in majors. Adjuncts use fewer student-centered teaching practices like active and collaborative learning and case-based learning—strategies that are known to encourage student learning.

That’s not a very good case for adjuncts.
Well, after I had synthesized the existing research I wanted to try to understand the adjuncts’ plight. I don’t think there is something inherently wrong with the teachers themselves, but these studies related the negative outcomes of having courses with adjuncts.
Adjuncts don’t get professional development; they aren’t paid for office hours. Many of them can’t even spend time engaging with students. So, rather than blaming the individuals, I want to understand what we are doing at institutions that is preventing them from being successful.
My studies have been qualitative, looking at how some campuses have policies and practices that are supportive of adjuncts, while others don’t.
We are looking at how faculty are able to perform in these different environments, to demonstrate that their inability to perform their jobs well stems from their working conditions.

You say some schools treat their adjuncts well.
Yes, sometimes it’s the institution and sometimes it’s a specific department. But institutions often don’t create policy around nontenure track faculty. Even at my own institution we do not have an overall institutional adjunct policy. Each department and each program creates its own practices. This is part of a bigger, national problem. It isn’t on the radar screens of institutional leaders, so there is often no policy or practice in place. That’s one thing I’m advocating for—to see that it rises up to the level of creating institutional adjunct policy.
Right now policy is dependent on the enlightened leadership of department chairs, many of whom aren’t trained for these roles and will eventually rotate out of the position. They often don’t know much about adjunct faculties. Occasionally they’ll have enough conversation to recognize that the department isn’t making its adjuncts successful. Then, maybe they start inviting the adjuncts to department meetings so they know about curriculum changes, or they begin collaboratively scheduling with the other institutions at which adjuncts work, so that they don’t have to run between schools with only 10 minutes between classes. Or they see that they should hire the adjuncts more than one day before the class begins so they can prepare. They can start to recognize these problems and do something about it.

Adjuncts were never meant to be the large part of faculty, but in four-year schools they are close to the majority and in community colleges they certainly are. How did we get to this point?
That is the million-dollar question. Lots of people have floated reasons, but there is no way to know the intention behind the various decisions that took place. For instance, some people claim it is the decline in state funding. But state policymakers will tell you it is the institutional leaders’ fault because they think there is no money to pay instructors. But you see the same problem at private schools where they do have the money. Institutions without the pressure are still making those choices.
Some people say it is the corporate mindset toward the contingent labor movement. It reflects the public workforce of the last 20 or 30 years and it has swept over into higher education. But contingent labor is quite different in the business world. For example, if you are a contingent professional like an engineer, you get paid really well because you are giving up job security and benefits. It’s the opposite of our situation, where we have professionals who are paid poorly and don’t have job security.
Some people blame the idea of corporate flexibility—we want to try new majors, we want to be able to shift out of a major where there aren’t as many students enrolled. But even that logic is faulty because the majors that are full of adjuncts—like English, mathematics and biology—are not in decline.
There are many ideas around why this is happening, but none of them exactly match the trend.

And this went on largely unnoticed?
Right. John Cross from Bloomfield College (N.J.) and Edie Goldenberg from the University of Michigan wrote a book [Off-Track Profs: Nontenured Teachers in Higher Education, MIT Press, 2011] examining 10 elite institutions that had a majority of adjuncts—and none of their academic leaders knew that this had happened. The leaders asked why they didn’t know that most of the faculty teaching their courses were adjuncts. Cross and Goldenberg looked at hiring data in various departments and discovered it wasn’t being shared broadly. They found that academic leaders were pressuring departments to save money and this is the way the departments interpreted it—by hiring cheaper labor.
Unintentionally, we went from having few adjuncts to having most undergraduate courses being taught by adjuncts.

Has the situation gone past the point of no return?
A project I’m involved in, “The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success,” has been trying to bring together academic leaders to look at the problem. If the research shows that this model has taken over—unintentionally—and has lots of negative outcomes, then we can—intentionally—come together as a community of policy makers, accreditors, campus leaders, business officers, HR professionals, and so on, to explore what would be a better model. Going back to a largely tenured faculty model is impossible because of economic issues and pressures. But we know that the adjunct model isn’t right either. That is what I’m trying to start a conversation about. What is the alternative that doesn’t look like either of those models, that has more job security and involves the adjunct in curriculum development and professional development? We are talking about a professional position, but maybe not with lifetime job guarantees. We can move to a 21st-century workforce model that matches the needs of education and students, not just economics.

There were stories last year about a Duquesne adjunct who lost her job and died, unable to pay for heat or medical expenses. Are stories like that what it takes to get people to pay attention to this issue?
This gets to the other side of the problem—equity issues, human rights and fair labor issues that, it disappoints me to say, have not been compelling to people.
That’s why we are looking at other kinds of issues that might seem to be more compelling, such as the impact adjuncts have on student learning and educational institutions.
For whatever reason, it is harder to get leaders to care about fair employment and human rights, when they are under so much pressure to remain competitive and keep costs under control.

How is this affecting the quality of education in this country?
What I fear is that we are setting ourselves up to go from being known for having the best system of higher education in the world to having people 30 years from now look back and say, “That’s when they let the whole system degrade.” We will no longer be the premier system of education in the world.