Educational Quality in Jeopardy in Pennsylvania Universities – Why a Strike Might Happen

Dear Students,

I love university.  From the very first moment I started as a student, I thought it was great.  The buildings, old and new, housing different academic fields, knowing there were extremely knowledgeable people who were dedicating their entire lives to those fields and passing on that knowledge to students.  I was nervous my first day.  University, I think no matter how small a university you go to, it feels big.  Big ideas, a campus much bigger than your high school and anxiety filled visions of getting lost, looking stupid, and feeling small run through our minds.  By the end of the first year I realized I was in love.  I felt that after 1 year of university I had learned as much as I did my entire time in high school.  I was exposed to diverse groups of people, diverse sets of ideas, and could literally feel my mind and my values growing.  Now I know my experience is not everybody’s.  It’s not everybody’s calling to devote themselves to this institution we call university, but by my junior year I knew it was my calling.

Society is made up of many different parts, and I believe that universities play an important role.  Whether a student pursues an Associate or Bachelor degree, or chooses to specialize more deeply in their area of interest through a graduate program, the character and knowledge they bring into their new roles in the “real world”, as a result of their education, is important.  We live now in a nation where universities are under attack.  Education is becoming increasingly undervalued.  Yet history clearly demonstrates that when societies make education a priority, it promotes greater innovation and economic growth, empowers people with knowledge as an antidote against oppression, and gives us the ability to flex our minds and adapt in an ever changing and increasingly technological world.  The most current attack on universities in this nation is in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).  If a new contract isn’t agreed upon between the faculty union and the state system by Oct. 19th, the faculty at 14 universities across the state will go on strike.  This has the ability to cause great disruption to the education of our students and because the state system is trying to spread the message that our striking is out of selfishness and desire for money, and a betrayal to the students we say we care about, I wanted to take a little time to explain why we’re striking and why it matters.

Educational Quality

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                             Faculty Rally at West Chester University

Several proposals by PASSHE remain sticking points in our ability to come to a fair agreement, and most of them have to do with educational quality. The state has conceded on some of the items that would have a negative impact on teaching from their initial proposal.  Some of the major ones still outstanding are as follows:

  • An increase in workload for full-time adjunct faculty. Adjunct faculty are an important part of a university because as faculty retire or move on, as programs grow, we need quality adjuncts to fill teaching roles.  When we get good ones and the position becomes permanent and tenure track, it is an easy transition for that faculty in their new role as a permanent professor.  By increasing their workload to 5 classes (a lot by any university standards) and reducing their pay by 20% the probability of attracting quality adjunct faculty is reduced.  In addition their increased workload will have negative impacts on the quality of teaching and thus the student is not served well.  The state also wants to significantly reduce the pay for part time adjunct faculty as well.
  • Increased reliance on adjunct faculty. Ultimately adjunct faculty would like a job with more security as we all would.  Adjunct faculty are only there to teach and generally play no other role in the university.  They don’t advise students, they don’t serve on committees or are required to do university service.  And why should they?  They don’t have the same protections as tenure-track faculty and can be let go at any time.  The state wants to increase the cap on the percentage of adjunct faculty at each state university.  Coupled with the last point, this means less quality teaching.  It means that since adjunct faculty are often looking for more permanent work, this will result in universities constantly utilizing less experienced lecturers who have never taught courses before.  Any student who has taken a class from a first time teacher for a course, you know it’s not as good as it could be.
  • Increased workload for those supervising internships, supervising student teachers, and teaching lab courses. Any time there is a numbers increase on supervision, the time with each student is less.  Good supervisors do a lot of work and it is a very helpful role.  The increases in workload for internship supervision is by 67% and for supervising student teachers 20%.  The most egregious one for me is the reduced value of lab courses.  This is a difficult one to explain, but basically one hour of lab used to count as one contact hour, but now they want to reduce it to 2/3rd of a contact hour.  Faculty in the state system are required to teach 24 contact hours an academic year.  So those who teach lab courses will have a greater workload even though labs have grading, and take time to prepare just as much as a lecture.  This will also discourage faculty from offering lab courses.  Lab courses are part of important hands-on experiences.  They are usually in smaller settings too, where students have more interaction with their professor.  Increased hands-on experience in the classroom is proven in research studies to be an important part of quality teaching. So why doesn’t the state system want that?  Because if I am teaching a 3 credit course with 3 lab sections, I have 6 contact hours for a 3 credit hour course.  A regular lecture course with no lab is 3 credits and 3 contact hours.  So if I teach labs I teach less credit hours.  You, as a student, pay by credit hours.  You are a dollar sign to them, and nothing more.  They don’t care how well you are taught, or what research demonstrates about effective teaching practices.  It’s about how much money they can make.  This is what’s happening all across the U.S. in public higher education.
  • Allowing administration to move faculty to different departments to teach different courses. Did you ever have a teacher in high school teach you a subject that wasn’t their specialty?  It happens in middle schools and high schools all the time.  Have the PE teacher, teach a history class, have the biology teacher, teach a couple of math classes.  This could happen at university now as well, where teachers who didn’t specialize in a particular area are forced to teach outside their area of expertise.  How much would you expect to learn or enjoy such a class?

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Matters of Money

So you might say this is a pretty one sided discussion what about money.  Clearly faculty want more money right?  So let’s talk about that a little.

  • Well who wouldn’t like more money? But keep in mind we have already been without a contract for almost a year and a half and have been on a salary freeze.  We would also like to be treated with similar salary increases as the state has offered other unions in the state.  We would like our salaries to keep pace with inflation.  Who doesn’t want that? However, if you talk to any of your faculty, you’ll probably find that they care less about that, than impacts on their work quality, and the quality of education they can provide you.  To show you how committed the faculty are to improving education, recently the state system tried to offer faculty more money to their salary to try and have us ignore all the measures they are taking to reduce educational quality.*  The union refused to sign a contract based solely on a salary increase, and refused to be pitted against adjunct faculty.
  • Health care costs are also currently a point of contention. There are many unions who have had to take a hit in increased health care costs.  How far we will get in regards to this issue remains to be seen, but we do believe that quality health care should be something provided by employers and changes proposed by the state system would incur additional costs in range of thousands of dollars to faculty.  We have taken smaller hits in the past which have essentially negated salary increases.  This year, most faculty expect a similar result and don’t expect more net salary given the increased health care costs we are likely to incur.

The mission of PASSHE is to provide the highest quality education at the lowest possible cost to students.  The problems that we face in higher education in this country are perhaps broader than just what we are facing here, but if tuition costs are not going down and quality continues to get lowered something about the system is broken.  We have less direct say in these larger problems, but we can be advocates for the quality of education you receive as a student.  Thus, I felt it was important for students to know that your faculty do care about you.  We don’t see you as a customer or a dollar sign. We see ourselves as people who play a role in your future, and thus the future of the region, the state, and the nation, and we feel the quality of education you get is important.  We are tired of decisions being made about teaching dictated from a group of people who haven’t spent any time in the classroom.  If you are concerned about the strike, you and your family need to send an e-mail to the university president at the university you attend.  You need to contact Chancellor Frank Brogan (Chancellor@passhe.edu).  You need to write your local state congress representatives.  We faculty, still hold hope that a strike will not be necessary, and if it happens a strike is no holiday to us.  I’ll be just off the California University of Pennsylvania campus, on the picket line, every day, hoping sooner than later, I will get to walk back on the campus and give students the quality education they deserve.  You may not agree with our taking a stand on these issues, and that’s okay, but I hope you can respect my right to see this as important, and I hope that you all will take a stand for whatever you truly care about in your futures as well.
In Solidarity,
Swarn Gill
Department of Earth Science,
California University of Pennsylvania

*Note:  The article that discusses the offer made to faculty to increase their salary, states that our average salary for faculty is over $100,000.  This is untrue.  Salaries at public universities are publicly available.  Here you can find all salaries of all employees in the university system.  You can export this data to excel.  I calculated the average salaries from cell B270 to B6315 (which is almost all faculty) and came up with an average of just under $80,000.  A big difference from what PASSHE is saying.  The data is from 2013, but represents the contract we are currently under.

Teacher Teacher, Can You Teach Me?

As an educator, naturally I think a lot about education (now if you liked that riveting beginning please read on).  Over my years as a professor we hear a lot of about better methods to educate.  A lot of fancy phrases get thrown around like problem based learning, inquiry learning, student centered pedagogy, etc.  Rather than discuss the merits of these techniques and whether or not they are better than the “chalk and talk” style of teaching (another exciting catch phrase) I want to take a look at things from a more fundamental and philosophical level as is often my nature.

Let’s first forget about the fact that there are multiple learning styles amongst people and that the way we learn also changes as we grow in age.  What I mainly want to talk about has to do with knowledge, learning, and critical thinking and we may return to some more specific stuff later, I really can’t be sure, because I haven’t decided what the point is to this blog. 🙂

So how much knowledge is there in the world?  Before we quibble about what knowledge is, or whether we can truly “know” anything, let’s just sort of look at it from a somewhat quantitative point of view.  It seems clear to me that if you take any field of study we simply know more today than we did yesterday.  Every day we are discovering new things.  So we have a lot more to learn or that we can learn today than in the past.  Yes there are always things that we are going to be a little unsure about or that we are on the leading edge of discovery and so haven’t solidified our views yet, but each day we move a lot of things into “okay we know this” category and out of the “unsure” category.  Truthfully speaking every day we probably do the reverse as well, but I would say there is a net movement towards “knowing” something new all the time.

It is also clear, as we look at education (and I am speaking mostly about North America) that critical thinking skills are low.  I am a huge proponent of encouraging better critical thinking skills in children.  In fact children already have great critical thinking skills, it’s just that the education system eventually drives it out of them.  Perhaps due to the fact that kids are often wrong in the conclusions they make (which by the way is amazingly okay because we should be encouraging the process and I think instead we tend to shut the process down in favor of the “right” answer, and perhaps because education as an institution promotes rote memorization over critical thinking.  Not to give rote memorization a completely bad rap, because I think there always has to be a place for being able to memorize things).

So to go back to my point

From http://www.northwestprimetime.com

about knowledge, there is a lot of things to know and even under the banner of better critical thinking skills it is, in my opinion, extremely wasteful to have young children rediscover everything we know in this world.  I also think this is okay because kids are extremely good at memorizing things so why not let those sponges soak up some basic knowledge?  Some very thought provoking researchers on education like Sugata Mitra would argue that in the age of information memorization of information is not necessary, that anybody can simply look up the information they need.  Given the amount of misinformation out there in cyberspace I think at the very least a basic set of knowledge is required to at least help students from sorting out bad information from good.  And as the picture indicates, memory is an important part of the processor that is our brain.  We need to have some stuff in there.

But young children are good at a lot of things and there are certain ages where they are exceptionally good at certain things such as learning languages, learning mathematics, and rote memorization.   I gave a talk one time to a bunch of 2nd graders on tornado safety and there was not a single student who didn’t have a question and who was curious.  At that point I began to wonder, how do we go from this child thirsty for knowledge to the typical apathetic college student I see in my class? The next question then becomes why don’t we take advantage of what we know about how kids learn and when they learn best?  In answer to that question I have only opinions so please forgive me if I’m grossly mistaken, but I think it comes down to several things:

  • A pace of learning that is too slow. Children become bored and their active minds turn to other things.   The rate in which knowledge is expected to be absorbed by a student actually increases with time which is exactly the opposite order it should be. I’ve heard the argument that young children shouldn’t have to work so hard at school at younger ages that they should play more. My experience in watching young children learn is that play and learning aren’t really that different. And I think there are ways to even make the learning more interactive socially for those who might worry about a loss of social skills as they spend more time learning.
  • A lack of funding for schools and low pay in general for educators. I know, another educator complaining about funding, but the emphasis a society places on good education is important. Giving all schools equity in retaining good teachers, smaller class sizes, and having effective tools for the trade is important. By making teaching a higher paying and attractive career by ensuring they will have the tools they need when they start their career, we can bring in brighter and better teachers. In my experience I have seen far too many students choose teaching (especially in science) because specializing in their chosen interest was too hard. This seems wrong to me. Currently most of the brightest and best go elsewhere because they can make more money, and those that are extremely bright and choose nobility over money (I praise them all!) are often frustrated by a system in which they do not feel supported and actually feel constrained and trapped.  I think the lack of finances is in large part why curriculums become less varied and standardized because they are more easily measurable in making decisions on how to dole out the limited funding that all schools fight for.
  • Homogenizing teaching. The feeling that many teachers have is that they have little freedom in their curriculum or how they teach. Exposing students to a diversity of teaching styles and material increases the value of collaborative efforts among students and helps students understand the teaching style that works best for them. If all students are exactly the same and exposed to exactly the same style of learning it doesn’t surprise me that many students are bored, or don’t see the value of education. It doesn’t surprise me that many students simply see education as a game in which once they figure out the system they can cheat themselves out of actual learning and simply get the grade they need to move forward. Let student’s express their individuality through learning is important, and I think part of that comes from letting teachers express their individuality more through teaching.

I apologize for the length of this post as I find I can never be brief when it comes to talking about education.   I think instead of coming up with ways to make learning fun, let’s remember that for every little kid, learning IS fun.  Let’s figure out instead how to foster that feeling as they grow older.

From http://students.ou.edu