The Gates Foundation recently spent 6 years and a lot of money trying to improve student outcomes in 3 big US public school districts and 4 US charter school networks by improving teaching. Metrics of teaching effectiveness were developed, tracked, and incorporated into hiring, retention, promotion, and salary decisions. Teachers received frequent, structured observations of their teaching, and received training in how to teach better. And of course, the total investment in all this was much higher than the Gates Foundation’s expenditures, once you account for all the teacher, administrator, and support staff time involved. In monetary equivalent terms, the total cost was on the order of several thousand dollars per pupil per year. All of which made basically no difference for any measure of student achievement, not even if you restrict attention to initially low-achieving students.
I freely admit I’m not an expert on this stuff. Just thinking out loud here. Here’s my question, to which I don’t know the answer: what would you find if you did something similar to try to improve university faculty teaching? On the one hand, university faculty typically have little pedagogical training, so maybe there’s more room for improvement in their teaching than there is among K-12 teachers. I’m sure my own teaching has room for improvement, and I doubt I’m alone in that! On the other hand, just like in K-12 education, a lot of things that have big effects on university student achievement can’t be addressed by anything professors do in their classrooms.
To be clear, my question is not “Is there any meaningful variation among university faculty in how well they teach?” (I’m sure there is!), or “Can individual faculty ever improve their teaching?” (I’m sure many can!) My question is, “Can you meaningfully improve university student achievement, compared to the status quo, with institution-level initiatives that aim to train, hire, and reward good teachers?” I don’t know the answer. But extrapolating (over-extrapolating?) from the linked report, it seems like “no” might be a possible answer.
I guess the question behind my question is, if a university wants to improve institution-wide student learning outcomes, what sort of initiatives work? I’m sure there must be some research on this, of which I confess to almost complete ignorance. Looking forward to learning from your comments.