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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Straight Up Conversation: The Guy Who’s Teaching Professors to Teach

By Rick Hess — June 25, 2020 13 min read
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Jonathan Gyurko is president and co-founder of the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE), which partners with colleges and universities to help improve the caliber of faculty instruction. Today, ACUE works with more than 150 higher ed institutions across 38 states and Canada and recently launched a major initiative with four systems including Cal State, Texas A&M, Missouri, and CUNY. Prior to launching ACUE, Jonathan led an education consultancy, worked in charter schooling, and was the inaugural Harber Fellow in Educational Innovation at Wesleyan University. I recently had a chance to talk to Jonathan about ACUE’s efforts to teach professors to teach. Here’s what he said.

— Rick Hess

Rick: So, what exactly is ACUE?

Jonathan: Rick, we’ve got the best higher education institutions in the world, and our professors are experts in their subjects. But it’s an open secret that hardly any college educators are prepared to teach with proven approaches. Certainly not in a comprehensive and intentional way. It’s hard to believe, really, given the intense focus in K-12 over recent decades on instruction and educator preparation. Surely college freshmen can benefit as much from effective teaching practices as high school seniors.

So that’s what we’re addressing. ACUE is a company we launched six years ago, in collaboration with college and university leaders, faculty, and experts in college pedagogy. Our mission is student success through quality instruction. We prepare faculty to teach with proven approaches. We award the only nationally recognized credential in effective college instruction endorsed by the American Council on Education (ACE). We’ve published a dozen studies showing stronger and more equitable achievement among students taught by ACUE credentialed educators. No surprise—good teaching matters.

Rick: How did this all get started?

Jonathan: Like a lot of things, out of conversations with friends. They included Matt Goldstein, who was chancellor of the CUNY system; Eduardo Padron, who just retired as president of Miami-Dade College; Molly Broad, who led the UNC System; Andy Stern, president emeritus of the Service Employees International Union; and others. Our thinking went something like this: College graduation rates are not where they should be. Of the millions attending college for the first time, only 60 percent earn a bachelor’s degree in six years. At community colleges, it’s only 32 percent in three years. The figures are worse for first-generation, low-income, and other underserved groups.

Higher ed has responded to all this with a “student success” agenda emphasizing access and affordability and out-of-class interventions like advising, supplemental instruction, and digital nudges. But none of this gets to the heart of the matter: quality teaching and learning. We knew we could help many more students succeed by strengthening the quality of instruction with practices shown to promote engagement, persistence, and learning.

Rick: So, what does the training actually look like?

Jonathan: The training is actually part of a larger collaboration with a college or university, or sometimes, an entire system, like the initiative we just announced with the Cal State, Texas A&M, Missouri, and CUNY systems. We start by working together to design a plan that’s tied to the institution’s student-achievement goals. Our academic directors then assist with implementation. We support campus communications and faculty recruitment—to make sure we help create a solid foundation for an effective program—and our researchers conduct program evaluations to determine faculty and student impact.

Within this larger partnership, we enroll cohorts of faculty into an ACUE course in effective college instruction. These courses are delivered online and address 25 core teaching competencies defined in our Effective Practice Framework. Competencies address course and class design, student engagement and motivation, active learning, higher-order thinking, and assessment. There’s an emphasis on inclusive and equitable teaching throughout, and they’re all research-based.

Our courses are full of demonstration videos, expert interviews, planning guides, and other resources. Faculty work through some of the material on their own and some in collaboration with other colleagues in their cohort. The courses are also facilitated by an expert in college instruction and faculty development, typically from an institution’s teaching center, who receives ongoing support from ACUE. Courses are composed of 25 learning modules—one per competency—and collectively recommend hundreds of practices. Faculty typically complete one module a week.

In every module, faculty learn about&mdsash;and are required to implement—at least one practice relevant to their teaching. They reflect on the experience in writing and explain how they’ll refine the practice next time. ACUE scores these reflections against a rubric and provides timely feedback to faculty so they can continue to hone their practice. This learning design gives us confidence—and data—that faculty are changing their teaching for the better.

Rick: How does your work apply to online instruction?

Jonathan: Faculty can enroll in our course in Effective Online Teaching Practices. This addresses all of our Framework’s competences and emphasizes best practices native to synchronous, asynchronous, and blended instruction. Plus, our modules for in-person teaching also include resources for online instruction to meet the needs of faculty with dual responsibilities. To date, 40 percent of the faculty we’ve credentialed reported teaching some or all of their courses online.

Rick: They’re all teaching remotely now, aren’t they? How has COVID-19 affected your work?

Jonathan: We’re busier than ever. In March we published a free Online Teaching Toolkit, which has been accessed over 60,000 times. In April we ran a series of webinars with experts in online teaching and the major higher education associations, with over 5,000 participants from more than 1,500 institutions. These offerings met the emergency, tactical needs to faculty. Now our partner institutions are asking to enroll faculty in our courses and micro-credentials for online teaching to support faculty in the middle and long term.

Rick: How do you assess the impact of your work?

Jonathan: Together with partner institutions and third-party evaluators, our researchers have published a dozen studies, so far. We see that students are learning more, more equitably, when taught by ACUE-credentialed faculty. The Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins found stronger student engagement at Miami-Dade College. We’ve observed higher grades at the University of Nevada, Reno. An external evaluation led by the Center for Advanced Study of Education at the CUNY Graduate Center found stronger rates of course completion at Rutgers University Newark Campus. Together with Texas Woman’s University’s Office of Institutional Research, we found a completion gap eliminated between African American students and their peers. Independent research by Cal State, L.A. found annual 25 percent increases in completion of gateway mathematics and an elimination of the gap between Pell-eligible and other students. We also asked Mike McPherson, co-chair of the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, and other experts to review our methodologies and conclusions. They endorsed the research and published their independent findings last April.

Faculty are enthusiastic, too. Of the thousands of educators we’ve credentialed, 94 percent find recommended practices helpful in refining their teaching. They report learning dozens of new approaches and implementing, on average, more than 25 new techniques.

Rick: As you know, there’s the inevitable question of whether good teaching is more art or science. How do you think about that dynamic, and what does it mean for your work at ACUE?

Jonathan: Of course, there are truly inspired professors—artists in creating the conditions necessary for learning and insight. But, Rick, as you think back to your undergraduate and graduate years, how many do you remember? Fortunately, there’s also a science here based on the scholarship on teaching and learning—a 40-year literature. Our view is that all college educators should be prepared in the essentials, so that all college students get the quality of education they deserve.

Rick: How big an impact is ACUE having? How many institutions are involved and how big a role are you playing in those places?

Jonathan: We’re now in our sixth year, and our growth has been pretty rapid—although we’re still just beginning to make the impact we seek. We’ve partnered with over 150 institutions across 38 states and Canada. By this spring, we’ll have credentialed over 5,000 faculty. Given typical teaching loads, that benefits an estimated 600,000 students, annually. We’ve also formed relationships with ACE, the Council of Independent Colleges, the National Association of System Heads, and others.

Rick: Classroom teaching is curiously undervalued in much of higher education—especially in elite research institutions. Given that, how do you convince institutions to embrace this effort or professors to participate?

Jonathan: It’s a question of values and value. You’re right: Elite institutions value research and can select the students who are all but sure to graduate. But let’s not let their experience bias our understanding of a big and diverse sector. Most institutions are not as selective. Many consider themselves teaching institutions with a growing focus on equity. They’ve tried the “out-of-class” student-success interventions and realize they’ve got to get to the heart of the matter. Plus, public funding still hasn’t recovered from the Great Recession and COVID-19 budget cuts are looming. It’s as much in an institution’s financial interest as it is its educational mission to retain, educate, and graduate every student it possibly can.

It hasn’t been hard to convince professors. We see a real hunger for practical approaches that will make their work more impactful. Let’s also not forget about the transformation of the professoriate: Two-thirds of the workforce—1 million educators—are contingent, “adjunct” faculty. They’re not being asked to do research—although many still do. They’re only being hired to teach. Our courses ensure that they teach with evidence-based practices, and our certificate differentiates them in the labor market.

Rick: There’s not a lot of instructional training for higher education faculty out there. I was always struck that the question, literally, never once came up during my years of doctoral study. But there are, of course, some scattered efforts to coach up grad students or support new faculty. Given that, what makes your training distinctive?

Jonathan: Agreed, and unfortunately, it never came up in my Ph.D. experience, either. We seek to be part of a president and provost’s strategic vision and plan—to give quality teaching the prominence it deserves. We help to ensure that faculty are properly rewarded and recognized for their involvement. We’ve not seen an approach as comprehensive as ours, or one that requires implementation of teaching practices and that measures impact. This is all very different from a professional-development workshop or a preservice “boot camp.” And we’re seeing our ACE-endorsed certificate already influencing hiring and promotion practices. Plus, the abrupt closing of campuses and transition to remote learning has made crystal clear: teaching is the one core function that remains and must be of quality.

Rick: What’s the cost of ACUE to the institutions? How does the cost structure work, and what do you tell prospective partners about the return on their investment?

Jonathan: As you know, much of education thinks about costs rather than investments and return, so I’m glad you asked about both. When we partner with an institution, we enroll cohorts of 30 faculty. Given that most professors teach about 120 students a year, a single cohort can impact 3,600 students. Our academic directors provide planning and implementation support and our researchers collaborate with institutional research offices to study impact. All in, the program fee for these and other services is $40,000 per cohort.

Let’s put this in context. That’s about $12 per benefiting student—in the first year alone. It’s also an investment, given data suggesting that faculty continue to use evidence-based practices. Compare that to advising and other “student success” interventions that can cost thousands of dollars, per student, every year. We’re keeping our partnerships as affordable as possible so that cost is not a barrier to scale. It’s also worth noting that a public institution can recoup this investment if just a handful of students persist in their studies for an additional year. At a private institution, it can be just one or two students. One study, conducted with Delta State University with an ROI tool developed by Ithaka S+R, estimated a 5X return on the investment in a single year.

Rick: You’re familiar with the challenges of measurement-based reform in K-12 and the concerns that educators raised about value-added models. What lessons do you take from that, and how does your use of metrics compare to what we’ve seen in K-12?

Jonathan: Yes, all too familiar, and the differences in assumptions, purposes, and politics between K-12 and higher ed couldn’t be more stark.

K-12 has long assumed that teaching matters. State certification, formalized evaluations, and probationary periods all aim to ensure an effective teacher in every class. The value-added models just took this to the extreme, attempting to quantify teaching effects at the individual level, amidst turbulent politics, high-stakes accountability, and stressful working conditions that hardly made for well-controlled analysis. We do not want to see this recreated in higher ed.

By comparison, higher ed has long assumed that if you are an expert in your field, then you also know how to teach it. We’ve also encountered a belief that it’s too challenging, methodologically, to measure the effects of faculty development on students.

We’re using our metrics to address these two assumptions—first, to show that teaching is a practice that can be acquired, and second, that it’s possible to estimate its impact. Our logic model shows how we’re operationalizing this research, at the program level, with anonymized data. Our studies have involved over 600 ACUE-credentialed faculty, more than 2,000 comparison faculty, and student data representing over 800,000 student enrollments. Collectively, it’s one of the largest bodies of evidence in higher education that fully connects the dots between faculty development, changes in teaching, and student outcomes. As the studies add up, we aim to leave no doubt about the importance of quality instruction and the value of investments in it.

Rick: OK, last question. What’s the biggest lesson you have learned so far in doing this work?

Jonathan: I’ve learned so much, it’s hard to name the “biggest” lesson. You know I spent the first half of my career in K-12, and I think we all kind of assumed that if we could just get students to graduate high school, then college will take care of the rest. I’ve learned that’s not the case. But I’ve also joined an exciting movement that is determined to prepare millions more students for rewarding careers and fulfilling lives.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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