Friday, November 16, 2007

Define "Quality" Teaching

Ted Seto, a tax law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, and a fellow contributor on MoneyLaw recently published Understanding the US News Law School Rankings ,60 SMU L. Rev. 493 (2007). Seto criticizes the USNews law school rankings, among other reasons, because they undervalue or do not take into account at all some attributes law students deem most important in evaluating law school performance. The November 2007 issue of National Jurist revealed the results of its survey of law students on what matters most to them. Over half the student respondents, 66%, said that quality teaching was the most important attribute in law school quality, outweighing all twelve of the factors the USNews rankings track. Indeed, USNews does not collect data on teaching quality and does not factor it in the rankings. Runners up according to students: bar passage rates, job placement rates nine months after graduation, and practical skills training (also not a factor in the USNews rankings).

It's no surprise that consumers of legal education value most highly the product they consume -- legal education. A quick look at the USNews graduate schools ranking website is all it takes to see that USNews produces the rankings to help students comparison shop for legal education. Why isn't USNews responding to market demand and accounting for what students value most?

USNews doesn't consider qualilty of law school teaching because there is no accepted metric for it. What makes a law teacher great? Teaching and learning are intensely personal and idiosyncratic activities. Students in the same class perceive the professor differently, sometimes radically so. Moreover, evaluating relative quality of teaching takes perspective and comparative experience that law students lack. My story, I suspect, is typical. The quality of my law teachers appeared most clearly in the rear view mirror after I graduated and had occasion to hear their words in my head: "Consider the impact of procedural posture." Or, "You'll just have to come up with something better than that." We could correct somewhat for the temporal problem of judging teaching quality by asking alumni for their retrospective assessments. But, we return to the fundamental and inescapable truth. Teaching quality is in the eye of the beholder and thus controversial.

We law professors know that student evaluations are fickle measures of teacher effectiveness. We review them for "warning signs" not so much of quality but of social deviance: drunkeness, distracting bigotry, sexual predation, and the like. We tend to discount glowing recommendations by attributing some of the glow to a teacher's decision to lower the performance bar for students in order to raise their short term satisfaction. We are uncomfortable passing on the quality of our colleagues' teaching. This is puzzling. We justify our collective abdication of a meaningful quality control role as a noble exercise of respect for academic freedom. While academic freedom surely protects external intrusion into the substance of what we profess in the classroom, I see a kind of double standard. We tend to be far less reticent in passing on the "quality" of a colleague's scholarship (although we are much happier to simply count the number of articles than actually read them). This is so, even though most of the time our evaluation of scholarship is more about presentation than substance, and presentation is a written manifestation of communication skills rendered live in the classroom.

Given the difficulty, expense and controversy inherent in evaluating quality in teaching, it is no surprise both that law schools don't invest much in evaluating it, and USNews doesn't try to account for it directly in the rankings. Ted Seto's observations about the rankings are powerful. I can't help but try to defend the market though. A law student buys a portfolio of law teachers. In any year, at any school, some teachers will pay off and others will not. A quality teaching faculty, like a quality mutual fund, is one that outperforms its competitors over time as a group. Some of the factors USNews does measure may be the best we can do under the circumstances to find quantifiable surrogates for the overall performance of a law school's teacher portfolio.


Lisa Epperly said...

Why not, then, take matters into your own hands? Why allow relatively inexperienced professors to teach classes without adequate supervision from a more experienced professor? We have a few new associate and visiting faculty here who could benefit from the experience of a mentor, someone who attended a few of his or her classes, listened to the lectures, not just for content, but for quality, for expertise in the field. I often wonder why I pay huge tuition fees to be the guinea pig on which you test the “quality” of a new or visiting faculty member. The university is lowering the quality of my education for the benefit of the visiting faculty member’s.

Obviously, not all faculty are created equally, but if those in the position to make changes that benefit the students and the school know that quality of faculty is one of the most important factors to the clients they serve, why do they not take the time and energy to give us the very best professors they can find? I have had some great professors here, and some lousy ones; and one of the best professors I have had is a new visiting faculty member. But, I ask again, why test their skills on me? Don’t I deserve more? Don’t I deserve the very best professors in their field? Should I not have the benefit of being taught subject matter from someone who lives and breathes that subject? Someone who has oversight from professors who are already here and who understand the needs of the current student body?

As a student, I have noticed a disturbing trend in the newer faculty members. They teach, but only because they must. They seem more interested in research, in producing those monographs the university counts rather than reads. They are not invested in the students’ education. Seasoned professors, those whose classes I look forward to each week, are interested in me. They are interested in my success, not just as a good law student, but also as a good lawyer. They offer counsel outside the classroom, are available for a chat about the trials and tribulations of law schools, they listen when I ask questions and formulate answers that are thoughtful and geared to my needs. They care. Not about how many publications they can put out this year, but about me, and about my education. That is why we rave about professors (or not) on evaluations. That is the question the university needs to be asking, and that is what they need to be telling the students who are considering Penn State Dickinson. Maybe if the folks at US News and World Report hear it enough from the students, they will start factoring it in to the rankings. I, for one, think our ranking would shoot through the roof if our faculty were a factor.

Marie T. Reilly said...

You ask me and presumably all law faculty, "Why not take matters into your own hands?" Fair question. I've suggested some of the justifications law faculties give in "Define 'Quality' Teaching"-- academic freedom, deference to personal, idiosyncratic "style." I'll add another, time. Law professors and administrators tend to view time in semester or year- long increments. Law students, on the other hand, tend to take a much more short term view. Law students measure time in class periods, and in some especially tedious classes, in minutes. The difference in these approaches to time shows up in reactions to detached, disorganized or otherwise ineffective instructors. Law school administrators feel the luxury of time to correct for improvident investments at the end of an academic year. Law students, as you note Lisa, feel the press of time acutely. Each moment is valuable, and no law student will pass this way again.

My question is a back atcha. Why don't law students do more to take matters into their own hands? Students offer their own justifications for their passivity in the face of inferior, ineffective teaching. Students are concerned that midsemester complaints will be met with retribution from the target teacher. No one student has the incentive to take on the task of railing against a bad teacher alone. Yet, collective action is difficult (and time consuming) to organize and cartels are inherently unstable. Even if most students voice dissatisfaction, there's always the one or two who will seize the opportunity to kiss up.

So, it seems, neither full time, tenured faculty nor students are in an ideal position to monitor and correct sub par teaching. Yet both teachers and students have a powerful incentive to optimize teaching quality. Both groups ride on the tide of teaching. Faculty prestige, truth be told, is measured in the short term in numbers of law review articles. In the long term, however, the prestige of any faculty rests on the success of its students.

Faculty members cannot act with the speed students might prefer. Nor is it possible to eliminate error in assessing and predicting a potential colleague's classroom skill. But we try. Students should try too, despite the obstacles. In my opinion, students have far more control over the educational product delivered to the classroom and the hallways than they realize.

I agree with your assessment of the quality of teaching at PSULaw. I'm proud to be part of this group of scholars.

Thanks for your comment.

Marie T. Reilly said...

Steve Ross asked me to post this:

The original blog raises questions about what students want. Of course, students want an effective, knowledgeable, and entertaining teacher. My casual experience at my alma mater (Boalt) though, is that students far prefer the prestige of a school and the coincident benefits to their employment rather than a quality education. Unfortunately, I think it unlikely that if Penn State invested in attracting a distinctly quality group of teachers, it would not attract many students admitted to top 20 schools.

That said, it is a big advantage on the margin, and we ought to pursue it where we can.

At many schools (Penn State included), there is an institutional problem that may lead to some of Ms Epperly's concerns: permanent appointments are done first, and laboriously, by a committee that spends hundreds of hours evaluating and recruiting prospects, and by the entire faculty. At the end of the process in February and March, spots unfilled applying fairly rigorous standards must be staffed by visitors. At this point, the process is handled by overworked and exhausted administrators, who do the best they can UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES. Query whether a superior institutional arrangment wouldn't yield more satisfaction to students.

Alison M. Kilmartin said...

Students point to teachers, teachers point to students, and around and around we go. When we all take responsibility for our spheres of influence and pull in the same direction, we will find ourselves rising to the top.

Students need to take terrible teaching and turn it around into tremendous work product. That shows that even if we do have a teacher who can't teach him or herself out of a paper bag, we are resourceful and intelligent enough to teach ourselves and rise above the challenge.

Teachers need to produce scholarship that is rank-rising worthy, seriously invest in students, and haul "you-know-what" to bring quality candidates through the doors during hiring season. Kudos to those how are working hard to make permanent appointments happen, because if Professor Ross is right I cringe at the thought of having to learn the law from those selected by administrators UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES.