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NYT Is Clueless on Education

By Professor Doom


Last time I wrote how there’s so often a disconnect between a mainstream media article and reality, a disconnect that is painfully revealed in the comments section. People that know what’s really going on can’t help but speak up in the comments against the lies errors in the article.

A recent editorial in the New York Times, “A Solution for Bad Teaching” is amazing both for its matter-of-fact style…and the firm corrections from readers that actually know the facts. One would really think the NYT would know a thing or two, but the stuff being said here is, well, weak. Let’s get it on:

IT’S no secret that tenured professors cause problems in universities.”

What the heck? The article says this in the sense that tenure is bad for teaching, but this is just pure silly. Tenure is dead. This has been known for years. Yes, there are faculty with tenure, but every year, the average age of a tenured faculty member goes up very nearly 1 year—there’s little new blood going into tenure. Most college courses are not taught by tenured faculty…in fact, most courses aren’t even taught by permanent instructors. Instead, minimally paid, poorly treated, no-benefits adjuncts now make up the majority of teaching. These are well known, public, much discussed facts in higher education. The article is roundly laughed at in the comments for even implying the presence of tenure is the problem.

From the very first sentence, the article is disconnected from reality. If you don’t read the comments, you might not know that. Alas, the article is more than one sentence. The article quotes some educationists:

the relationship between teaching and research is zero.”

Again, the comments point out that reality is different. It turns out, no surprise, that researchers in a field are actually interested in that field, and generally are better teachers. Researchers tend to be innovators in a subject. Mussolini might not have been a great person, but I bet he would be an awesome teacher of what fascism is…as loathsome as I find communism, I would pay real money to sit in a classroom and have Karl Marx teach me about communism (and answer a few questions!). Researchers are creators, you *want* them teaching about what they’ve made, and that’s how it works in education, too. A great chemist is going to have great insights on chemistry. Now, yes, it’s certainly possible that some researchers are lousy teachers…but some teachers are lousy teachers, too.

The article goes on:

In a recent landmark study at Northwestern, students learned more from professors who weren’t on the tenure track.”

Alas, the link (from the article) goes to a pay page, so I can’t see the study with my own eyes. It’s criticized in the comments, at least. On the other hand, here’s an article showing that says the opposite, and you won’t have to pay to read it.

Ok, I grant that when studies conflict, it’s just a matter of opinion. But the article goes on to discuss student evaluations:

students rarely favor teachers who grade leniently — and give higher ratings to teachers who assign heavier workloads.”

Now, this, seriously, is a joke. I’ve cited study after study after that this is not the case…and what the author says flies in the face of common sense. Yes, there are studies that give a very low (0.06) positive correlation with workload and evaluation…but a correlation that small is meaningless in every useable sense. Students totally favor teachers that grade leniently, although it may be more clear to say they punish teachers that grade harshly.

The article does discuss fixes for bad teaching, but when all the premises are demonstrably wrong, it seems pointless to consider the conclusions. An average reader of the article will merely pick up “tenure is bad” and a few other false statements.

Only by reading the comments can one now get some idea of the reality of information from mainstream media. But if reading random comments is more informative, more honest, than the “professional” news, why bother with professional news? I guess that’s why mainstream media outlets are losing viewers, and money, so precipitously.

A few choice comments highlight the level of disconnect between this article and reality:

my overall impression is that during my career, tenure was the most valuable bulwark against the dumbing-down that has been driven by administrators and schools of education.

--Sorry, I had to mention another shot at Education as a field. Again, everyone working in higher education knows what the problem is…

I do take issue with the claim that it is only a mistaken "popular belief" that students evaluations track with lenient courses. The study linked here in support of the authors claim is based on research from the 90s…In Academically Adrift, the authors cite Valen Johnson (2003), so not much more current, but reflecting just the opposite trend…

--I tried to get admin and my Educationist colleagues to consider what was said in Academically Adrift. I was punished for being “non-collegial,” and not one of these scholars (sic) even bothered to check out the book in the college library (I saw with my own eyes that the book’s only stamp came from when I checked it out months earlier).

As someone who spent 43 years in university research labs and classrooms before I retired, I beg to differ…

--Yet another direct observer that knows when he’s being lied to, because he’s seen it with his own eyes. For years I trusted what my “betters” told me, until the disconnects between what I was told and what I was seeing motivated me to commit myself to see with my own eyes a great many more things, and to blog what I now know to be the truth of the matter.

I’ll let the other comments stand on their own:

The assertion that there is zero relationship between teaching and research is nonsense. In the sciences, if you aren't doing research, your knowledge and teaching are going to be dated within 15 years.

Academia has a problem, but this proposal is surprisingly naïve

the way you've described the "necessary evil" of tenure quite offensive and baffling…

This article is naive on several fronts…

This is all the same old neoliberal lies…(1) Most instructors now are poverty wage paid, "part time," non-tenured adjuncts. Tenure is already history….

There were a very few (guardedly) positive comments, but otherwise the comments were many variations of “this is so wrong.” Even a minutes’ research by the author of the article would have told him what he was writing was wrong.

I haven’t asked many questions of the reader lately, but here goes: why are such disconnects so common nowadays?

I strongly encourage you to think long and hard about that question, because every answer I come up with is frightening.



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