The motivation for this article comes from a variety of sources, personal experience, stories and accounts from friends and colleagues and from my own students. The precipitous drop in graduation rates at two and four year college continues unabated coupled with a dramatic rise in tuition costs with many prestigious universities becoming increasingly top heavy with high-paid administrators being hired while students continue to suffer from cuts in student-oriented programs, services, assistance, aides, tutors and courses. Rather than hire additional instructors, I have been witness to fully-enrolled courses being cancelled rather than hire additional instructors to cover the course with the directive to cancel the course coming straight from the college president’s desk.
In a country that is ironically increasingly dependent on the fruits of science and technology, it ranks very far down on the Mathematics and Science index in a world that is increasingly dependent on science and technology. The bulk of this problem sits squarely with the education establishment in this country, with what I have termed “Unprofessionalism In Academia”. I will address specific practices and programs implemented, some as part of the problem and some as part of a solution.
To ostensibly address the sharp decline in graduation rates, the City University of New York implemented the “Pathways” initiative back in 2012. In short, this program “dumbed-down” existing courses, lowering the mathematics standards and rigor for many science courses and all but eliminated the laboratory component of applicable courses, reducing them from a four credit to a three credit course. The thinking was that if they lower the mathematics requirements, reducing the rigor necessary for successfully completing the course and removing the lab requirement, the failure rate of the course(s) would drop and thus more students would graduate. What they did and continue to do, as the program is still in effect today, is to disenfranchise the students, leaving them ill-prepared for the real world. While the graduation rates may have improved and look good to the bureaucrats and bean counters in Albany and at CUNY Central, the students are not prepared to enter the work force or to transfer outside the CUNY system to other institutions or universities where the accepted level of rigor has not been diminished.
The problem isn’t with the tried and true methods of teaching mathematics and science at the college or university level. We have produced many noble laureates in this country such as the great Richard Feynman. Granted, these individuals were gifted in their own right but they were taught and their skills honed in an environment that recognized the need for science and didn’t take it for granted. Scientific and mathematical rigor were valued, not frowned upon or minimized such as it is today. Most people in this country are scientifically illiterate, much of it due to a cultural disdain for anything that requires more than a modicum of work combined with many students being woefully unprepared for college entry in their primary and secondary educational careers. If you can’t “Google It” or it isn’t on YouTube, then it lacks any value. Flash news, most real science that’s worth following or studying isn’t on YouTube; not much science literature worth reading can be “Googled” either. In order to satisfy de-facto mandatory graduation rates in secondary schools, rates and incentives that are tied to state and federal aid, many school districts teach to a test rather than teach the students basic mathematics, science and deductive reasoning. When many students graduate high school, they can’t even read at an eighth-grade level, never mind at the college level and are unable to workout the Pythagorean theorem. As an example, in one of my freshman physics courses last spring, the failure rate was 50%; out of a class of 23 students, 11 failed even with extra help and many hours of private instruction. They are simply not prepared and no amount of time spent trying to catch up can make up for what they didn’t receive in their secondary school education. To digress briefly, just look at the following Donald Trump is receiving during this country’s current general election cycle, he being demonstrably uneducated but yet his popularity remains high. Is the magnitude of that following an anomaly or is it indicative of a shallow, uneducated electorate, an electorate whose critical thinking skills are all but nonexistent? Would his popularity be what it is today in the era of say, JFK, arguably the last, best president this country had? I think not.
Up until here, I’ve described a dysfunctional educational system in terms outcomes, a cause and effect, perhaps. I will now discuss some of what happens within academia, to academicians and to students with outcomes that directly effect student performance.
Adjunct faculty in most cases are hired on an “as needed” basis but comprise the majority of teaching faculty in academia, at least in this country. They are poorly treated in many institutions and, in some settings, are treated with utter disdain. They are accorded little or no access to basic benefits or redress of grievances, provisions accorded to even the cleaning or maintenance staff – indeed, the adjunct is sometimes paid the equivalent of or, in some cases, less than a janitor. Although most adjuncts are members of a union, the union membership is largely symbolic with the union having little or no power to effectively represent the membership. Union dues are collected but the instructor receives little or no benefit from them. Adjuncts are the last to receive a course assignment in many cases, a problem for those who rely on the income and who are trying to plan their near-term futures. When attempts to confirm an assignment or effectively communicate with the department chair, generally the individual who makes course assignments, emails are ignored, a technique practiced by many to avoid confronting problems. Often times, the department chair or “administrative assistant” (secretary) lacks the common courtesy to return phone calls while in other cases, this assistant has been accorded undue authority in the department.
How do students suffer from the appalling treatment of adjuncts by department chairs and administrations? Many adjuncts commute between assignments and different schools during the course of a semester, always fighting traffic or trying to workout conflicting or very tight schedules. This leads to a lack of preparedness and organization by the adjunct, an individual often with equal or superior academic training than the full-time or tenured faculty. Since adjuncts are hired on an “as needed” basis with little or no regard for their well-being who often fall victim to budget cuts, their performance is often unjustly scrutinized with a seeming cyclical dysfunction already built in – they are expected to provide the same quality and level of instruction as the full-time faculty but have none of the institutional stability the full-time faculty have nor are they accorded the same support as the full-time faculty, leaving them vulnerable to the problems described thus far – a vicious cycle if there ever was one.
Full Time Faculty
Most full-time faculty have roles outside the contractual requirement that they teach a minimum number of “contact hours” or number of courses. They are often involved in research with the bulk of their time and effort devoted to that research with teaching, in some cases, being considered a burden. Grant writing is another responsibility of many full-time faculty, with the funding for their research often contingent on the awarding and receipt of grants and the timing involved therein.
Many institutions hire foreign-educated faculty at a disproportionate ratio to native instructors, often leaving students at a disadvantage due, in many cases, to a language or cultural barrier – I have been asked by many students on not just a few occasions to explain -in English- what a foreign instructor has taken ninety minutes to explain -without success, wasting valuable time but also disenfranchising the students of that particular lesson. Although these faculty may have multiple advanced degrees, they lack the cultural integration and competence necessary to effectively communicate with native-speaking students, often rendering them ineffective teachers. The question as to why there is such a reliance on foreign-educated instructors logically follows; please see my opening remarks as an answer to that question: we are simply not producing them anymore, at least not in the numbers necessary.
There is also an undue importance placed on the degree level attained by the faculty member as well as their research accomplishments or the quantity of papers published. That they are poor or ineffective teachers is rarely addressed and, when it is addressed, its too late because they’re protected by tenure.
All of this can be classified under the rubric of “Unprofessionalism” but it is symptomatic of a larger societal problem – the lack of a real interest in authentic, meaningful education, especially in the sciences and mathematics. If this trend isn’t reversed in a timely manner, this country and the western world, in general, will continue its precipitous decline with recovery an ever receding event horizon.
All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike-and yet it is the most precious thing we have
An index of all articles in this blog can be found here.