Carl Wieman Finds Colleges Resist Measuring Teaching
I’ve just started my subscription to The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the first print issue I received had a great article about Carl Wieman, whom I have written about previously (here and here and here, for just three). The story (online here: Crusader for Better Science Teaching Finds Colleges Slow to Change – Government – The Chronicle of Higher Education) was about his efforts to get the White House to measure teaching practices.
At the White House, Mr. Wieman tried to figure out what might actually get colleges and their faculty members to adopt proven teaching practices. His centerpiece idea was that American colleges and universities, in order to remain eligible for the billions of dollars the federal government spends annually on scientific research, should be required to have their faculty members spend a few minutes each year answering a questionnaire that would ask about their usual types of assignments, class materials, student interaction, and lecture and discussion styles.
Mr. Wieman believed that a moment or two of pondering such concepts might lead some instructors to reconsider their approaches. Also, Mr. he says, data from the responses might give parents and prospective students the power to choose colleges that use the most-proven teaching methods. He hoped the survey idea could be realized as either an act of Congress or a presidential executive order.
I hadn’t heard about this survey, but my immediate thought was, “What a great idea!” We need better ways to measure teaching (like with Sadler’s recent work), and this seems like a great first step. I was surprised to read the response
College leaders derided it as yet another unnecessary intrusion by government into academic matters.
“Linking federal funding for scientific research to pedagogical decisions of the faculty would have set a terrible precedent for policy makers,” said Princeton University’s Shirley M. Tilghman, one of several presidents of major research institutions who wrote to the White House to complain about Mr. Wieman’s idea. “It is naïve to think that the ‘surveys’ will not have consequences down the line.”
Wouldn’t “consequences” be a good thing? Shouldn’t we reward schools that are doing more to improve teaching and adopt better practices? Shouldn’t we incentivize schools to do better at teaching? I guess I’m the one who is naïve — I was surprised that there was so much resistance. In the end, Wieman lost the battle. He’s now left the White House, dealing with multiple myeloma.
Perhaps the saddest line in the piece is this one:
“I’m not sure what I can do beyond what I’ve already done,” Mr. Wieman says.
Is it really impossible to get universities to take teaching seriously?