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Thursday, September 26, 2013

New study finds teaching specialists are better teachers

Unfortunately, that isn’t the headline on any of the media articles about the NBER working paper by Northwestern economists David Figlio, Morton Schapiro (who is also Northwestern’s President) and Kevin Soter. I wasn’t actually going to write about this, mostly because David is a really good friend (not to mention an outstanding economist) and I haven’t had the time to figure out how to say what I wanted to say without sounding like I was unjustly criticizing his work. But fortunately, a couple of other people have made the points I wanted to make (mostly without sounding overly critical of the authors). The basic gist is this: the Figlio, et al, paper got a ton of press last week for supposedly finding that “Adjuncts are better teachers than tenured professors” (that’s the headline from the Chronicle), thus causing many in the higher ed community to freak out. But what most of those stories seemed to miss (or glossed over) was that the non-tenured (or non-tenure-track) instructors in the Northwestern sample are NOT your typical ‘adjuncts’, at least not in the sense that most people in higher ed think of (i.e., I think most of us associate 'adjunct' with short-term, temporary part-timers). Rather, the Northwestern non-tenured/non-tenure-track folks included in the study are mostly full-timers with long-term stable contracts*. And as noted in this Atlantic article by Jordan Weissmann, they are generally paid much more than your typical adjunct.

So, the way I interpret the findings of the Northwestern study are that instructors who are hired to specialize in teaching end up being better at teaching than instructors who are hired to produce both teaching AND research. Hmmmm. Not exactly a shocker to economists. But I can see why '”Are Tenured Professors Better Teachers?” makes a better headline…

If you are interested in what the research has to say about whether typical adjuncts are better teachers, Weissmann’s Atlantic article has a great overview of the literature. The upshot:
This isn't a complete rundown of all the research on this topic, nor are any of these studies definitive. Each has its own shortcomings and methodological challenges. But read together, I think they can begin to tell us a few things. Tenured professors don't necessarily make the best teachers in every subject or school. Adjuncts might be excellent for teaching certain pre-professional courses. But as a whole, students, and especially at-risk students like young freshmen and community colleges attendees, appear to be better off with a full-time professor, whether they're tenured or not.
I think that last point – that full-time/part-time matters more than tenured/non-tenured – is particularly key. But as Weissman points out, more research is needed…

* The one thing I do fault David and his co-authors for is that the explanation about the nature of Northwestern’s non-tenured instructors is stuck in a footnote. But I have a feeling the next iteration of the paper will have a much bigger discussion of this.

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