Quality and Politics

As is well known, the California legislature is slashing state support for higher education, forcing us to raise tuition again and again. One response at Cal has been a consulting project from Bain and Co., called Operational Excellence (perhaps because the words quality and excellence hardly occur in any of their product, which is about saving money and doing almost as much almost as good work).

The project had a big show-and-tell event on campus today, with posters and folks answering questions about this and that initiative. I came away pretty discouraged, because I think our leadership has got the politics of this wrong and we will keep getting our nose bloodied if we think our problems are all in the administrative zone. There is low-hanging fruit here. For example, we don’t charge units for their energy consumption so we have no incentive to fix our windows (we have to pay for stuff like that) or even turn the lights off. But our problems are bigger, and more at the core of our business.

My take – anecdotal at least in part, YMMV – is best characterized by remarks at least one colleague and I have heard more than once from our wonderful public policy minor students: “This is the first course I’ve had at Cal in which I really had to think/I raised my hand in class!” To hear that from a junior is frankly heartbreaking. I know my students are strongly socialized to flatter my ego, to try to guess “the answer” I have in my head, and not so much oriented to teaching each other, and it takes some serious effort every semester to get them in a mode where real learning is possible.

I think about one of them going home for Thanksgiving near the end of her first semester with us and being grilled by relatives while they wash up after dinner:

“So tell us all about college! How’s Berkeley!”

“It’s OK, I guess. I couldn’t get into my two first-choice courses, and the prof in calculus keeps standing in front of the board when he’s writing on it, so we can’t hear him or see what he’s writing. One of the classrooms doesn’t have a projector, so we spend ten minutes getting one set up at the beginning of every class. I got a paper back that just had “B+, nice work” written on it; I have no idea how to do better. Hey, those sweet potatoes were delicious!”

In my nightmare, the uncle Lisa is talking to is the finance chairman of her state rep’s campaign committee, and those little conversations are poisoned arrows in our political heart. I opine that as long as we cannot deliver a great intellectual experience in nearly every meeting of every course (and if not us, who? and if not now, etc.), any savings stuff like Operational Excellence will generate will just be taken from us by the state in further budget cuts.

Why is this happening? I’m pretty sure it’s because of the complete absence of a quality assurance program for teaching that anyone from industry (service or manufacturing) would recognize; I’ve asked where it is again and again, and everyone – including the chair of the Committee on Courses of Instruction – says they don’t know. For research, we have a fairly good QA system with the equivalent of quality circles, collaboration, watching each other work and talking about it, peer feedback, and the other basics. But for teaching, where our political life hangs by a thread…well, there was a one-off program for about 40 faculty last spring on “how students learn”, and a seminar that twelve faculty a year can join, so if the HSL is repeated, these will reach the whole faculty once per forty years, on average. On the other hand, one of the first things the chancellor did when money got tight in 2009 was to fire the Vice-Provost for Teaching and Learning and not fill the position. There is a pretty good program for graduate student instructors (though very variable across units), so to the degree that a professor can be filled up with teaching chops in grad school and dribble them out across a career, we are building quality in the schools that hire some of our PhDs, and improving learning in our own section meetings.

I sense a great deal of resistance to taking teaching seriously among most of my colleagues (though everyone asserts, on cue, that we care about teaching, and sometimes that we are very good at it). This resistance has two main sources. The first is subconscious. As we are mostly all aware that student course evaluations, useful and important as they are, are uncorrelated with learning, and they are all we get, we have never had evidence of a type we respect as scholars that we are any good at it, and we are as insecure about our abilities – especially abilities in a field with a strong affective component – as the next person. Seriously engaging with improving teaching is just scary; why would I start to play a game I may not be able to get any good at? One of Deming’s 14 points is “Drive out fear.”

The second is a correct perception that there is a production possibility frontier across teaching and research, and an incorrect perception that we are operating on it and therefore any gain in student learning will be at the cost of research productivity. There is no reason to believe we are at that frontier, and if we bump up against it at some point, organizational learning and technological advance would push it out so that in a few months we would be inside it again, able to move up on either or both dimensions.

But let’s assume such a constraint, and imagine that we have to increase learning with no additional resources invested in it. Piece of cake, given where we’re starting from. Here’s one example: break the profound isolation of the teaching profession (only a pathologist in a dark room with his microscope, or maybe a forest ranger in a watchtower, has as little day-to-day peer and partner support as we do). A typical course around here meets for fourteen weeks, twice a week, in plenary session with the prof. Let’s imagine two of those weeks, about six hours per semester, redirected from meeting with the students to visiting another prof’s class thrice, briefly writing up three things she’s doing well that (i) I should try to copy in my own course (ii) she should be aware of as effective practice, be proud of, and keep doing; and three things that would make the class sessions [even] more effective. I still have 90 minutes left: this might be a lunch meeting to schmoose about what everyone saw in these visits (maybe in groups of four rather than pairs). After a couple of years of this, given the minimal base of collaboration and mutual coaching we’re starting from – let me emphasize, we never see each other work and never talk about what we do in this area – I guarantee that student learning would increase by way more than the 14% lost from so-called ‘contact hours’. Such a scheme would also generate the peer observation data required by our personnel rules for promotions and merit reviews but never actually provided. I can tell a parallel story about other elements of the learning enterprise, like critiquing student work, orchestrating group exercises, setting exams and exercises, and so on.

But that’s not all. Teaching is intellectually challenging, complicated, and fun to get better at. Learning is really complex and hard to understand; many things we know about it are not true. Intellectually challenging, complex, demanding, refuting errors…that’s catnip for this work force! We would start to learn that the naches provided by actually increasing student learning per hour, per course, and per degree awarded is actually much more rewarding than the ego trip we get from hearing ourselves say the most interesting things we know to a room full of students writing it down so they can try to say it back to us on the final. We would start having fun and feeling smart and competent; nothing wrong with that. And Lisa would start sending signals up the chain to Sacramento, and to voters, that would manifest the value of the higher education enterprise to the state in a way that might do us some real good. And do the state some good…talk about win/win/win deals!

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.