POV: Supporting and Assessing Community College Teachers: Professors as Clinicians
Currently, most academic professional associations are organized to support researchers. National conferences provide avenues for researchers to present and debate their latest works. Papers are read and presented for discussion with the hope of publishing the papers after important feedback. Many of the papers are quite technical and narrow in focus; often only a few colleagues and graduate students in the audience fully understand the nuances of the paper. Leadership roles in the organization are usually based on the number, quality and prestige of the leader’s publications.
Community college professors rarely attend these meetings. When they do, they feel like outsiders. They are like fans watching from the sidelines rather than participants in the game. The conferences are for researchers, and community college teachers don’t do much research. The conferences are for specialists; community colleges require generalists.
Professional conferences sometimes have a session or two on teaching in their subject area. They may even have a sub-group devoted to teaching. But these groups focus mainly on teaching techniques rather than content. They do provide valuable information to improve delivery, but that makes the non-researcher feel even more like a high school teacher than a professor.
Accrediting agencies don’t quite know how to handle community college professors either. They do recommend a master’s degree or higher in the person’s field of study for full-time faculty, and spend considerable time assessing how well students are meeting established outcomes. Little attention is devoted to a professor’s professional development.
For researchers, accreditors can examine the quality of peer-reviewed published research. Judging a community college professor is more difficult. Student feedback on evaluations cannot be used to judge competence. Fellow faculty members can sit in classes or give testimonials, but that creates a potential for conflicts of interest. Some schools may bring in outside evaluators to view classes and examine materials, but these are usually daylong visits that don’t capture a teacher’s overall quality or competence. Working, as they do, in an information vacuum, accrediting agencies usually suggest one of two flawed approaches: student-outcome tests, which are skewed by variable student ability and stifle academic freedom, or teacher-generated student outcome evaluations, which by their nature are largely subjective.
Many community colleges do have faculty development days where all full-time teachers convene to prepare for the impending semester. Well-meaning administrators put these together, but most faculty despise them. Organizers must find material that is relevant to more than 30 different disciplines. The result is often technology and facility updates, as well as general education sessions on issues such as how to engage a visual learner. The topics are important, but due to the necessity of universal application they are devoid of much content. “Couldn’t they have given me an e-mail on this?” seems to be a frequent refrain.
A new approach to professional development and credential assessment is needed. One model worth examining can be found in the way that the medical community handles its middle children: clinicians.
Clinicians have content-driven educations and are not researchers. Like teachers, evaluating them is difficult. Outcome assessments are tainted by the variable inputs that they receive. The best doctor might not have the best outcomes because her patients could be especially sick, and there are many other factors to consider. Teaching is similar. Student ability differs by school and semester. Outside factors such as financial aid and personal commitments are difficult to measure, especially at community colleges. We need to know if teachers are helping, but we should recognize the inherent difficulties in determining the extent to which they are.
More effective evaluation of community college teachers should focus on their knowledge of their content area’s subject matter, since content mastery is necessary for effective teaching. Here is where the evaluation of clinicians can help serve as a model. Doctors and nurses are professionals who require sufficient college education, but they need to be continually honing their knowledge and skills.
Licensing bodies (often specialty specific) require continuing medical education (CME) for certification. CME provides
up-to-date education to clinicians. Clinicians are not researchers. Their work is not peer-reviewed to the same extent as is that of researchers. Like community college professors, clinicians are working primarily to fulfill the needs of the general public, who aren’t qualified to judge their skill and competence. CME classes and tests are run by experts who provide quality education and assessments. A similar system could be put in place for community college teachers.
Who would administer such a continuing education system, and how it would be implemented, pose thorny challenges. Here’s one possible approach: Professional organizations like the Modern Language Association and the American Philosophical Association could serve as continuing education gatekeepers. Based on their work, professional conferences could then provide workshops for teachers on current research and the latest knowledge. Ongoing education would likely increase membership in professional organizations and increase attendance at annual meetings. Researchers would get new outlets to disseminate their findings.
Continuing education is no panacea. Attending classes and passing tests does not necessarily correlate with an increase in expertise. In addition — as flawed as they might be — some form of outcome assessment would be needed to ensure that knowledge being collected by teachers is being passed along to students. But these potential obstacles do not diminish potential positive impact of continuing education.
With a coherent system of professional education and assessment in place, teachers would be more ready to perform their duties. Accrediting bodies would be able to use this information as one important piece to evaluate faculty. It would provide
an easy way to measure professional development by faculty appropriate to their discipline and level of teaching. As with peer-accepted research, peer-provided education could help accrediting bodies and administrators, who must assess a wide array of disciplines and determine whether a teacher is content-ready to teach.
It is time that professional organizations, accrediting bodies and administrators better serve the large middle of
the profession. Discipline-specific continuing education would improve the competence of community college teachers and better serve the students they teach.