The problem with America’s education system: Excuses.

One reason the U.S. military is the most powerful fighting force on the planet, is that leaders don’t tolerate excuses. You do the job, and you do it right, or you will be reprimanded, counseled, and instructed to not make the same mistake again. The Marines call it a “Page 11.”

The same mentality works in the NFL. Good coaches like Bill Belichick, for example, don’t accept excuses. He wants the job done right, or you hear about it – in terms that cannot be repeated here. But that leadership, combined with high expectations, has resulted in numerous playoff appearances, four Superbowl spots, and three championships (Damn you, Giants!). And when players sit out, waiting for a better contract, they end up on other teams (Deion Branch to Seattle, Asante Samuel to Philadelphia, etc.).

This level of accountability is missing from America’s education system, and it is one of the major obstacles to success. In the private sector, employees are expected to perform their tasks satisfactorily, or they will be written up. Verbal warning, written, final, termination: Taken with an appropriate amount of coaching, these are four easy steps to a better employee, or a new one. It’s really that simple, just not in academia.

As an example, this past Sunday the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s higher education reporter Richard Lake wrote an article titled: “Workload has picked up, faculty at UNLV say.” In it, Lake reports that the faculty at UNLV is working harder than they were two years ago according to statistics from the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE). But even Lake notes that gauging the faculty’s actual workload is difficult due to the many different functions they serve.

Greg Brown, the president of UNLV’s chapter of the Nevada Faculty Alliance said, “The workload has increased substantially,” in large part because, as Lake reported, “the university has 10 percent fewer full-time faculty than it did in 2006 and virtually the same number of students.” But it does not have the same number of programs and classes, which is why I’m happy Mr. Brown teaches history and not math.

Prior to returning to school at an older age, I would have believed this nonsense, as I’m sure many people who read the article do. But having first-hand knowledge of how higher education has changed since I was in college the first time, I find these claims to be ridiculous.

First, many of the classes at UNLV consist of a PowerPoint presentation, which is read to the class, and later posted online for download. In a class like this, 39 students may as well be 339 students, since the presentation does not change. Furthermore, in these classes, professors typically learn very few students’ names, and rarely deviate from the lesson plan. So where is the increased workload? Grading quizzes?

Quizzes are conducted primarily in two ways: In-class or online. Many professors utilize UNLV’s WebCampus system to administer quizzes, as they are automatically graded by the system. Other professors have in-class quizzes which are done on a ScanTron – a sheet with bubbles, which can either be purchased from the university bookstore or picked up “for free” courtesy of student government (actually paid for by student fees). ScanTrons are also automatically graded, so where is the increased workload? Scanning 339 quizzes may take longer than 39 quizzes, but nowhere near as much time as actually hand-grading quizzes in the past.

So it must be papers. Clearly there is increased workload in correcting 339 papers versus 39, right? Even I can agree with that. But what the article doesn’t point out is that most tenured professors have graduate assistants that help in grading papers and other assignments. And what about classes that assign very few papers, if any? (None of my classes this semester have assigned papers)

The article also points out that some professors don’t necessarily have to teach 3 classes per semester, as many other activities count toward this “requirement.” Waivers are given to 255 of 712 full-time professors at UNLV, to perform other functions toward their 3-class workload. Some professors focus on research, others serve as a department chair, some supervise internships, and one in particular hosts a radio show.

This article also does not discuss part-time instructors or adjuncts. Some part-time instructors teach three classes and make less than $50,000/year with no job security. Their tenured counterparts make six-figure salaries to teach one class, conduct some research – which may or may not be published or bring money into the university, and host a radio show – with the ultimate job security. That seems upside-down to me.

Richard Lake’s article includes comments from one professor, Pushkin Kachroo, who taught four classes last semester and still had time to supervise graduate student research and serve as the director of UNLV’s Transportation Research Center. His salary is $116,000, while Dina Titus makes $107,855 for teaching one class, restarting her research, and hosting a radio show.

Explain that.

How about supervising internships? I did an internship last fall. I met with the professor supervising the internships for that department, and he told me I would be required to write a 10-page paper on the actual work I was doing, plus a 5-page book report on a relevant book of my choosing, with his approval. Aside from two reminder emails for required updates, I did not interact with this professor again. I hand-delivered my assignments to an administrator in the department, and had to look up my grade in UNLV’s WebCampus system. I got an “A,” but so did the other 3 students that did the same internship. So, did he actually read the papers? Or just verify that the work was done?

In a traditional class, a professor might assign 3-4 papers throughout the semester, with a class of 40 students. That’s up to 160 papers. The professor who supervised my internship would have to be supervising 80 internships per semester, just to reach a portion of the workload of teaching a traditional class with several writing assignments. Does anyone really think he supervises 80 internships per semester, every semester?

Ultimately, these are all excuses not to teach students.

UNLV’s provost Michael Bowers may believe that other activities should count as classes, such as “counseling a doctoral student,” or “reading a dissertation, making edits on it, [and] helping the student revise it,” but this is absurd. Apparently the days of professors helping students because they want to are gone.

If a professor can get credit for teaching a 3-credit course by hosting a radio show, why do I not receive the same credit for hosting MY radio show? (SHAMELESS PLUG: Zombie Nation Radio airs live every Thursday at 5pm on www.vegasallnetradio.com, podcasts available at www.facebook.com/zombienationradio)

Instead, we are told that having former congresswoman Dina Titus at UNLV is beneficial because of the experience she brings. I could agree with that if she was actually teaching students. Instead, she is only teaching 39 students in an ELECTIVE – Women in Politics – a 400-level course that only certain students can even qualify for. Her other two class requirements are made up for by her radio show, and “restarting her research” – which is a futile effort, given that she will be leaving at the end of the year to run for office again.

Meanwhile, students wait to graduate because some classes aren’t offered this semester “due to budget cuts.”

And did I mention that UNLV’s 4-year graduation rate is 11%? (6-year: 36%; 8-year: 48%).

Excuses.

There are far too many excuses, and not enough accountability. Everyone is self-interested, and not focused on what matters: EDUCATION.

Maybe, if there is no 2011 NFL season, we should hire Bill Belichick to oversee an audit of Nevada’s System of Higher Education. At least then, taxpayers and students would be taken seriously, and we wouldn’t have to listen to the politically-driven hogwash.

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One thought on “The problem with America’s education system: Excuses.

  1. This article makes me feel even more fortunate and appreciative that I am graduating from WTAMU. The history department is very obsessed with essay research. But then again, in the nearest city, the community college is scantron-only and does not teach strong writing skills. Writing skills demonstrate how well we reason, analyze situations and understand the material. AC advertises “why pay more for the same classes?”

    NOT THE SAME CLASSES!!!

    I can give lengthy rants on how failed the education system is from personal experience. My senior year of high school, I decided to drop out of Advanced Placement classes to take one semester of psychology and one semester of sociology for a broader education. Psychology went well, but in sociology, the teacher showed movies all the time and admitted he was teaching just to pay off his ex-wife’s alimony.

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