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Time to Look at Teaching at CUNY

November 15, 2010

By John Garvey

It is clear that many students entering CUNY are not sufficiently prepared. Hopefully, the efforts being made by CUNY and the Department of Education to enhance the readiness of students who graduate from high school, accompanied by the new clarity regarding college readiness from the New York State Education Department, will result in increased readiness of students entering CUNY in the future. At the same time, it is essential to recognize that what happens in the college classrooms is absolutely central to the possibility of improving college graduation rates.

Many CUNY students do not make it to graduation because they fail or earn low grades in too many of their courses. While it is tempting to explain those failures as simple reflections of students’ lack of skill and knowledge (and/or lack of effort), we must be prepared to examine the quality of typical classroom teaching practices as well.

I believe that many remedial and introductory courses are characterized by inadequate attention to a research-informed theory of learning (and, more specifically, inadequate attention to students’ prior knowledge and conceptions) and an overuse of trial and error methods by isolated practitioners.

Steve Hinds, a math staff developer at CUNY who has developed the math components for CUNY’s recent College Transition projects, has perceptively commented:

Reports on how to improve outcomes for underprepared students often focus on the merits of adopting specific program components such as learning communities, computer-assisted instruction, accelerated learning, supplemental instruction, work-based curricula, intensive advisement, or faculty inquiry groups. Certainly, many of these can be useful features of a high-quality remedial program. Unfortunately, though, too little attention is given to exactly how instructors teach students in remedial classrooms. There is an urgent need to re-examine the ways we teach underprepared students entering college. Re-focusing attention on pedagogy must also cause us to rethink how we approach content, assessment, curricula, staff development, student placement, and research. 1

The significance of teacher quality dominates much current discussion in the K-12 sector. But it has received far too little attention at the postsecondary level in general and too little at CUNY.

I believe that a focus on teacher quality should have less to do with the evaluation of individual teachers and far more to do with the identification and promotion of powerful models of effective teaching. The challenges involved in teaching under-prepared students are daunting ones. Too few college faculty members have the professional preparation or experience to figure everything out on their own.

In other fields such as medicine and nursing, individual practitioners are not expected to figure things out on their own. Instead, protocols of practice are routinely used, and mistakes and errors are continually scrutinized to develop improvements in practices. I know that there are numerous examples of remarkably innovative and effective teaching all across CUNY’s campuses. But those examples need to be moved from the margins to the center of everyday practice at the University. That will require significant efforts among the faculty to look closely at what they do and to be willing to learn new ways. It will also require that all faculty, including adjuncts, be provided with time to think, to talk, to plan and to reflect, and that institutional policies and practices are reviewed to determine what changes at those levels are needed to improve teaching and learning.

The challenges that college faculty face are not so different from those encountered by middle school and high school teachers who are frequently faced with the need to teach appropriate grade-level material to students who do not have the necessary skills and knowledge to handle that material. There is a great potential for developing more effective teaching across the full continuum from middle school to college if we establish regular opportunities for public school teachers and college faculty members to meet together and discuss common issues. Teachers at every level have much to teach and much to learn from each other.

1 Steve Hinds, More Than Rules: Lessons from College Transition Math Teaching at The City University of New York. City University of New York: Office of Academic Affairs. 2009.

John Garvey is the former Dean for Collaborative Programs at the City University of New York

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