Streamlining Education into Failure

During the fall of 2012, I taught a “Weather and Climate” course. A new course preparation for me, and a new course for my college, I was counseled to keep the course light on chemistry, physics, and math. The students simply wouldn’t be ready to deal with any such material. The students needed the course in order to complete an Associate in Arts in a unique discipline in order to help the students fulfill requirements for career advancement. If I sound as if I am being vague, I am. The minutiae of the details have little importance in my tale.

A request was also made to leave due dates open-ended. In other words, no due dates.  Please allow the students to submit work at their own discretion throughout the semester was the request. In the event more time is needed, you can request on the behalf of the student a time extension. I had no particular issue with the request. I knew from my own experience, though, zero due dates merely encourages 85% of people to be lazy, rush in the last couples weeks to submit homework which reflects no real thought or effort. People then complain about the lack of time given, lack of faculty feedback, grade achieved, and so on. Complete and utter displacement of responsibility, or blame, as the case might be.

One distance-learning student waited until the remaining two weeks of the semester to begin homework submission. During the Thanksgiving Break, homework began flooding into Blackboard from the student. I evaluated the homework and was not surprised to find little thought and effort in the writing assignments. So little thought, actually, the writing assignments had been reduced to one-word or one-sentence responses. I emailed the student, stating the effort was not enough to pass the course and I would continue to give zeros for every assignment submitted which did not show suitable effort, and those which showed some effort would be scored accordingly.

Streamlining U.S Education into failure

grade_fThe student’s reply was flabbergasting yet indicative of our K-12 educational system. “I am streamlining my answers,” was the reply. My reply was less streamlined. “You are going to streamline yourself into failing this course. You must provide faculty, instructors, and even employers enough information to evaluate your work. Failure to provide enough information will result in failure of my course. Failure later to provide employers with information will likely end in job loss. If I were you, I would put into practice appropriate behaviors now so you will have them ready for employment later.”

Young people are silly, right? Immature, and lack real-world experience, which is why I coach all students, stating even if you don’t like a course, or an instructor, considerable information can be gleaned from scrutinizing course materials, course management, lecture delivery, lecture tone, how questions are handled, and so forth.

I recently received my evaluations concerning the course, along with a brief letter from the college dean. The initial paragraph was standard boilerplate of how to read the evaluation color-codes. The second paragraph was directed specifically at me, using my first name.

In short, the dean recommended I “streamline” my course. I have too much material, apparently, too much for the students to get through over the course of 15 weeks (17 weeks minus Spring Break minus Final Exams Week).

Oh, the irony.

My community college weather and climate course has no exams, no mid-term, no final. For each chapter, I have identified all of the items I want read and have created an enumerated list of the topics, along with page numbers in which topics are found. From the enumerated list, I select 10-12 topics which become the basis for homework submissions. I have questions like, “Why should you not fly with a pilot who says he uses only air pressure for determining his altitude?” and “What is the difference between a mid-latitude cyclone and a hurricane?” and “What is a Stevenson’s Shelter?” Of the 10-12 questions, 8-10 are given in advance. Each chapter comes with a complete set of self-made Powerpoint slides, which, I might add, are beautiful. From my slides I created over 60 weather and climate videos (using Camtasia) which I posted to YouTube.

I’m not sure what I can do to “streamline” my 200-level course, other than to reduce the number of assignments, and the number of questions within each assignment.

I had been debating adding in the online laboratory exercises provided by my publisher for the upcoming 2013-2014 school year. In my own self-evaluative mode, my sense was I was not incorporating enough science, not enough labs. I was debating investing more in the lab manuals, more time in the publishers online content, or both.  However, if the deans are going to place so much emphasis on student evaluations and what students think they need to have in a course, I doubt I will integrate anything, not if I want to continue employment. And, my continued employment brings me to my next comment.

Scantron FormI’ve also been contemplating simply resigning. When administrators pay so much attention to student desires rather than to content, than to the needs of our national education system, and the needs of employers, the educational focus has tilted in a dangerous direction. I am no fan of No Child Left Behind, which really became Every Child Is Average. Those of us in Higher Education are now reaping the whirlwind of an educational policy which was nothing short of an abomination. I am not sure I can be part of an educational system which caters to students as clients, as customers, and seeks to apply the business rule of “the customer is always right” mantra to education.

Here is a brilliant essay by Spurgeon Thompson, Fordham University (Chronicle of Higher Education; 3/1/2013), relating the many concerns of using student evaluations. Europe has already figured this out, by the way. So has the rest of the world. Only in the U.S. do we see respect for education and educators declining.

Last year, I gave up teaching in the local ACE program. The Accelerated College Experience program (“E” might also mean “education;” at this point I can’t remember). The students were constantly outraged at me, having to cover the same material in 5 weeks as they would normally cover in 15, when their other courses were pared to a bare minimum. Over the few semesters of teaching the course, I discovered other ACE faculty were not covering the same material as their traditional semester course. Typically, 50%-75% of the content was being covered. Geometry and chemistry students were getting credit for a complete course, paying for a complete course, yet receiving only 50-75% of the actual course content. When asked if they were bothered by this,  my students by-and-large replied, “I don’t care. I’ll get my C. That’s all I need to transfer. The course is not in my major, either, so I don’t care.”

I could not abide the ACE program, especially after having a couple students threaten me with physical violence after receiving failing grades. In my humble opinion, the program was nothing more than cycling bodies through a system for the express purpose of accessing student loan money and state and federal funding, and pumping up numbers. The program also had a secondary impact of providing less-than-adequate education for the money and diluting the region’s educational foundation. A related program at the same school was audited by the state and found to have “misappropriated” about $135,000 of state grant funding. Essentially, scores on exams were faked. On the one hand, we are supposed to make sure the students adhere to academic honesty protocols; on the other hand, administrative ethics are dubious in the pursuit of numbers and dollars.

I find the word, “streamline,” repugnate now. I can barely type the letters (I did, obviously), and I don’t want to read or see the word in print. In fact, my brain is redacting the word from memory right now.

Educators, parents, savvy students, and higher education administrators need to be wary of “streamlining.” We risk streamlining ourselves right into being equal to a developing country, in terms of our educational system, and the products of such a system. Students in rural areas, attending regional universities and community colleges are especially at risk. Large state colleges and universities, those “flagship” schools like Louisville, Ohio State, Kansas, Washington University, or St. Louis University, seem immune to these issues. Students seem to be aware they are going to be held to different standards at flagship schools.

Rural schools, Wichita State, Southeast Missouri State, Rend Lake College, among others, may find themselves the focus of scrutiny by students. “I’m getting a degree at University of Tennessee; I’m getting a degree at University of Tennessee-Martin. You can’t hold me to the same standards like UT-Knoxville.” Or, “You aren’t the University of Missouri-Rolla; this is University of Central Missouri. You can’t set the bar as high because you aren’t as high.”

In fact, I know the disparity is already being talked about. I hear students make precisely the above comments, on my own campus, and on Facebook and Twitter. “Who do they think they are? This isn’t IU (Indiana University).”

On the administrative side, the opposite side of the conversation occurs. “These aren’t IU students. These are more like I-O-U students, GED students. Don’t expect the effort from them you might be used to from students at your Ph.D-granting institution. You’ll have to … adjust. Also, we reserve the right to nullify anything in your syllabus which might adversely affect students. Additionally, if you don’t receive higher than a 50% return rate on your course evaluations, you will be placed on probation for a semester. If the following semester your return rate on course evaluations is not 50% or greater, your contract will not be renewed. Lastly, too many negative reviews may also land you on probation.”

If the U.S. and its residents truly want to create a diverse, flexible, creative, and knowledgeable workforce, we have to eliminate our current descent in mediocrity. We cannot fully implement a “business model” for students without compromising our national educational foundations.

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