Public systems should invest in teaching quality (opinion)

As the pandemic hits the two-year mark and higher education takes full stock of its impact, the challenges we face are multiple—but so are the opportunities.

We face the largest enrollment decline in a decade. The pandemic continues to disrupt learning and affect the mental health of too many of our students. Our nation cannot afford to lose any more students in an economy that demands postsecondary education and a democracy desperate for informed citizens.

At the same time, as readers of Inside Higher Ed know all too well, few faculty members are prepared to teach. Instead, they’re prepared as subject-matter experts and researchers with the presumption that they will be good teachers by default. Traditionally, fostering good pedagogy is an afterthought at best, and most professors don’t receive the same level of support or formal training in teaching.

Faculty members should not be expected to solve the educational challenges we face on their own. We must invest in quality teaching across higher education and equip faculty members with practices that can improve student learning, persistence and achievement.

This is why, at the end of last year, we joined higher education leaders across the country to kick off the Power of Systems, a transformation agenda for the future of American higher education developed by the National Association of System Heads (NASH) through generous support from the Lumina Foundation, Strada Education Network, the ECMC Foundation, the Open Society Foundations and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The learning imperative—focusing on quality teaching—is one of five core imperatives that make up the Power of Systems agenda that leaders are coalescing around to advance student success and equity. In addition, NASH’s imperative learning calls for the development, teaching and assessment of equity-centered academic and experiential curricula; flexible pathways of study with a more effortless transfer of credits from one institution to another; and better use of technology.

Across the City University of New York, we are advancing the imperative learning by making instructional excellence one of our signature issues, and we are leading a full-scale, multipronged effort to accomplish these goals. CUNY’s systemwide Innovative Teaching Academy works to improve pedagogy and innovation. A $10 million gift from the Mellon Foundation supports this work, including our new Transformative Learning in the Humanities program to promote new more equitable and engaged ways to teach the humanities. A new CUNY task force is identifying ways to enhance the importance of teaching in performance reviews and promotion and tenure decisions. Additional grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Charles Koch Foundation have enabled us to credential hundreds of faculty members in evidence-based teaching practices through the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE).

This partnership has been instrumental in CUNY’s efforts. ACUE has codified and validated the teaching skills and knowledge that every professor should have. ACUE’s Effective Practice Framework is now embraced by colleges and universities nationwide, too. Hundreds of faculty members across CUNY, and tens of thousands across the country, are developing these evidence-based teaching skills and earning the only nationally recognized collegiate teaching credential endorsed by the American Council on Education. A body of large-scale and rigorous impact studies shows that ACUE-certified faculty members retain more students, measurably improve student achievement and close equity gaps by using evidence-based teaching approaches in the classroom.

NASH’s bold agenda asks more of system leaders who may be accustomed to largely setting goals, distributing resources and holding campuses accountable. As it should. In addition to CUNY, systems like the Texas A&M University system, the University of Missouri system and California State University are leading major initiatives to invest in effective teaching at scale. For too long, the quality of teaching and learning was understood as a campus, or faculty, responsibility. But we know system leaders have the power to set the tone and put forward the necessary resources and conditions that directly impact the classroom.

When we think of learning, we usually think of the work of our students. But just imploring them to learn more is about as useless as a coach yelling at his players to score more runs. Instead, like the best coaches, we have it imperative to create the environments, provide the supports and set the paths that lead to true learning.

The systems NASH represents, including CUNY, have direct responsibility for approximately 75 percent of all students in public four-year colleges and universities. That is the Power of Systems, and the future is in our hands.

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