The New Conversations - What Faculty Are Talking About Now

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

From pre-K classrooms all the way to Ph.D. seminars, the education world has never faced the kind of sustained crisis it’s enduring now. And our regular faculty meetings at the UNC School of Education offer a fascinating window into the way schools, students, and parents are responding.

This is my first year on the faculty at the School of Education, and one of the things I relish most about this place is the close connection between faculty members and the people working on the front lines of education across North Carolina and the wider world. We have professors who talk every day with teachers, principals, and district leaders doing their level best to keep students on track, even as they know it’s an almost impossible task right now.

And, of course, our faculty are dealing with their own disrupted courses, scattered students, and chronic uncertainty about what lies ahead for higher education. I promised at the beginning of the semester to stop making predictions, so I’ll just share with you some of the recurring conversations I’m hearing at these gatherings of very smart people dealing with very tough times.

The Spring Semester. It’s already clear that faculty are planning for online classes in the spring. For the most part, people aren’t addressing spring plans explicitly, but there’s strong interest in strategies for making the online classroom better both for the School of Education and for the K-12 students who many SOE students are teaching (many of our students are current teachers or administrators, coming back for Masters degrees or other professional development). There’s an unspoken assumption that, for the foreseeable future, some form of online is here to stay and it is the job of the professionals at the SOE to embrace the change and figure out how to make it work better. 

Admissions. The national movement to eliminate, at least temporarily, the SAT and ACT for undergraduate admissions is driving a broader discussion about graduate admission requirements at the SOE. Already a strong grade point average can exempt candidates from taking the graduate record examination and a holistic admissions approach may be employed on a limited basis. The conversation is now evolving into a serious discussion about whether standardized tests predict ultimate success for professional educators and, if not, what should take their place? The holistic admissions approach offers an alternative looking at the entire body of a student’s work as a predictor of success upon graduation. The fact that dropping test scores in connection with admissions is now the subject of a legitimate and serious discussion has potentially far-reaching implications for all of higher education and even K-12.

Grading. As part of the switch to online classes last spring, many schools provided students with a pass-fail option. Some, including many of the disciplines at UNC, have carried the policy over to the fall. There are many rationales for the policy, but the most prominent concern is equity. Students who do not have optimum online access or an appropriate space at home to attend class and complete homework should be able to take courses pass-fail, alleviating some of the pressure they feel and hopefully avoiding a permanent pandemic scar on their academic record. The emerging conversation at the SOE is should there be a transition from grading to learning with an emphasis on outcomes? Like admissions, the fact that the grading structure is being discussed at the level of first principles is significant. This kind of deep reconsideration of the purpose and impact of grades has implications not only for American higher education but also for K-12 since the SOE faculty is training future teachers and researching educational policy for schools all along the educational continuum.

Equity. The racial reckoning taking place across America is a part of almost every conversation taking place at the SOE. It influences admissions and grading because of the concern that the current system puts people of color at an unfair and unintended disadvantage. But it has also catalyzed intense conversations about hiring, teaching methods, and public policy. More specifically, faculty are exploring whether a system designed to develop a community of students and faculty that produces great teachers and educational leaders is inherently biased against non-whites? The discussion has placed previously unthinkable ideas on the table. Ideas such as lottery admissions, gradeless classrooms, and tenure based on teaching excellence and research impact as opposed to publication in a small number of elite journals. There are also conversations about how to change the culture of the school to better reflect the realities of the world outside of academia. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I suspect the answer will emerge sooner rather than later.

Accreditation. The word “accreditation” came up several times during the faculty meeting and elsewhere on campus over the last two weeks. Online learning and the need to pivot mid-stream creates challenges for accreditation agencies with strict requirements for both course content and hours of classroom activity. The rigid rules that governed our work pre-pandemic simply don’t make sense in the new, disrupted world. There are similar questions about teacher certification requirements, school performance metrics, internships. and other regulations all of which are being questioned as we work our way to some kind of new normal.
I imagine similar conversations are playing out in schools across campus and around the country. Foundational issues have moved from abstract water-cooler talk straight to the Dean’s office. The answers will vary at different institutions, with new approaches as diverse as our post-secondary system itself. But it seems certain that big changes are coming and at a speed unheard of in the history of American higher education.


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