Student Learning Doesn't Depend on How Much Teachers Get Paid

Why administrators and policy-makers should stop thinking about education as a labor issue.

George Serdechny/Wikimedia Commons

What are the most important influences on student learning in college?  Here is one element that would NOT make my top 20: university salaries and labor practices. This is not a popular opinion right now.

A recent study from researchers at Northwestern University makes a direct and specific claim about the connection between labor policies and student learning: Efficient labor practices lead to better student learning. The authors, which included Morton Schapiro, the President of Northwestern, compared students who took introductory classes from tenure-track faculty (average salary for assistant professor: $98,400, average salary for full professors: $176,700) and those who took classes from non-tenure-track faculty, (unreported by Northwestern, but the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Adjunct Project reports they earn a generous $4,000 to $7,334 per course). The authors of the study urge us not to be concerned that the price efficiency of paying research-focused faculty three times as much as teaching-focused faculty is leading to lower learning:

Our results provide evidence that the rise of full-time designated teachers at U.S. colleges and universities may be less of a cause for alarm than some people think, and indeed, may actually be educationally beneficial. Perhaps the growing practice of hiring a combination of research-intensive tenure track faculty members and teaching-intensive lecturers may be an efficient and educationally positive solution to a research university’s multi-tasking problem

But student learning is not a simple output of an economic model. Higher education is not a mysterious machine, which takes inputs of money and students and spits out learning and jobs. We will not discover more about this machine, nor improve it, by feeding less money into it and ranking its outputs. While learning may be constrained by costs, learning is not directly connected to costs.  Learning is not a labor issue.

Consider air conditioning. Should we conduct studies measuring the correlation between room temperature and student learning? If we did, we might find a connection. But this would be absurd. Air conditioning, especially in certain times and places, is an element of basic human comfort. And if students don’t have a basic level of comfort they can’t learn. To enable a learning environment, schools should ensure that students have basic human needs. We don’t need a study to tell us that hungry, fearful, abused children have more obstacles to learning than well-fed and safe ones. The reason to ensure that no child goes hungry is not to raise their test scores.

The same goes for labor practices for the higher education teaching workforce.  If adjuncts are stressed by their lack of health insurance, job instability,  low wages, and institutional  neglect, this might well hinder their ability to help their students learn. But it might not. I know adjuncts who endure these obstacles and still manage to guide, inspire, and prepare their students just as well as tenured professors. If the students taking introductory classes from the lecturers in the Northwestern study are indeed learning more, it is not because of the low pay received by their teachers, but by something specific that those lecturers are doing in the classroom.  If schools cared about learning, they would find out exactly what that is (and ask their tenure-track professors to do the same thing), instead of merely congratulating themselves for saving money.

The American Association of Colleges and Universities have identified aspects of curriculum that improve student learning through their Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) Program. These elements include first-year seminars and experiences, undergraduate research, internships, service learning, and capstone projects. At the level of individual courses, reflective teachers and scholars of teaching and learning attempt to connect what they know about how people learn with the particulars of that discipline, or even that course. Obviously students learn best when they are interested and engaged, but how do I make Introduction to Psychology interesting to this particular group of 18-20 year olds in front of  me? The question a teachers should ask is not, “How do I give students better bang for their buck?” although they are certainly concerned with value. Instead, they ask: “What pedagogical approach works best for this content? What strategies can I use to get unmotivated students interested in statistics in the social sciences? What are the benefits of testing their knowledge in different ways? What foundational concepts are necessary for students to understand before they can engage in critical thinking in my discipline?”

If learning is not a labor issue, and learning outcomes are what we should focus on in higher education, why care about labor practices at all? Because these labor practices are an ethical problem, not a learning problem. As Chronicle of Higher Education writer and Hope College English professor William Pannapacker observed recently, in response to the Northwestern study, “What if a study said children make the best chimney sweeps? Would that be a reason to perpetuate child labor?”  If you want clean chimneys, study that. Which tools and techniques work for which kind of soot buildup? But child labor is a separate issue.

Likewise, making the entire higher education labor force part-time without benefits sure seems like an efficient way to run a business (coming soon, the higher education section of Walmart!). There may be some people who prefer part-time work, but an idyllic match between part-time work and willing faculty is a far cry from the more-than 40 percent of the faculty who are now part time, many who seek full time positions. The “cause for alarm” that the authors of the Northwestern study cite is not merely that students might not learn as much, but that someone who teaches for 25 years should not die penniless, with no health insurance, buried in a cardboard casket.  The story of Margaret Mary Vojtko, a Duquense University adjunct professor who passed away recently, has struck a nerve, and student learning has nothing to do with it. She helped student learning enough to have her temporary contract renewed for 25 years. But apparently was never a valued enough teacher to receive health benefits or a full-time salary.

If, as educators, we value fairness and the reduction of harm to the most vulnerable in our society, we should avoid exploitation of workers, and promote and regulate fair labor practices. But these fair labor practices do not produce learning any more than air conditioning does. The best thing that labor considerations can do is respect the basic needs of the human beings doing the work, and get out of the way. Many adjunct faculty are knowledgeable in their discipline, care for their students, and guide them to positive learning outcomes. Many do this for less than $20,000 a year. Paying them a living wage may not double their students’ learning, but it is the right thing to do.