When you can't understand the teacher

A North Dakota bill asking colleges to assess the English skills of teaching assistants kicks up a storm of controversy.

When Bette Grande heard her son and his friends complain that they couldn't understand their foreign-born teaching assistants, she urged them to sit in the front row. But when she talked with other undergraduates at North Dakota universities, she decided that might not be enough.

"The students ... were pretty much just being brushed off, or were told it was up to them to accept the diversity ... or listen harder," she says. There ought to be a law, she thought. And as a state representative from Fargo, Ms. Grande could help make that happen. The new law, signed in March, requires the State Board of Higher Education to create a policy assessing the English-speaking skills of faculty and teaching assistants (TAs). Students are also to be notified about how complaints can be filed and resolved.

But Grande's original bill stirred up more controversy than she expected. She says her goal always included giving more support to international TAs, but her proposal would have removed them from teaching roles if 10 percent of their class complained that they didn't speak clearly. That set off alarm bells for some academics, since research has shown that student evaluations aren't necessarily reliable measures of a teacher's effectiveness.

It also touched a nerve because it seemed to have a punitive tone. Yes, some university officials responded, students should be able to understand instructors, but communication is a two-way street.

"We live in a global economy ... and here in North Dakota, we've been doing better [in recent years] at being able to create diversity, and perhaps this is just one of the growing pains," says R. Craig Schnell, North Dakota State University's provost and vice president for academic affairs. He's heard from number of students who said they were able to work through initial communication barriers with foreign TAs and ended up really enjoying their classes.

The university already has a policy, because lawmakers also pushed this issue in the early 1990s. The only change, Mr. Schnell says, is that he'll have to keep better records and report to the state. In the past 10 years, he estimates only about 10 complaints have reached him. But he acknowledges some students may not know how to register their concern. He's planning to involve the student government in creating and publicizing a new system for investigating complaints.

At least 20 states have similar laws, while many others have statewide university policies. Most date back to the 1980s, and some schools with comprehensive programs have virtually eliminated what used to be a steady stream of complaints. But North Dakota isn't the only state that has revisited the issue lately.

The Kansas Board of Regents updated its 20-year-old policy after an audit in December. In a review of 59 newly hired faculty and TAs, it found that in 41 cases not all the steps for testing and interviewing were followed. It also looked at student evaluations of 37 faculty and TAs, five of whom received complaints about their English. A sample comment: "I would ask more questions if my teacher could understand me or I could understand her."

In 2000, Harvard economist George Borjas studied several hundred undergraduate students in economics. He concluded that having a foreign-born teaching assistant resulted in an average grade 0.2 points lower on a 4.0 scale. But scholars at Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus found in a 2002 study that if good training programs are in place, there is little evidence of a negative effect. In some cases there was a positive effect on grades.

Today, about one-quarter of the faculty in American universities are foreign-born, and that should be seen as an asset, says Akbar Marvasti, an economics professor at the University of Houston. "Communication skills are important, there's no question about it, [but] one also needs to acknowledge [their] contributions," he says, especially in science and math. A longtime US citizen who was born in Iran, he says the increasingly diverse student body will benefit from international role models.

At OSU all potential international TAs are evaluated, and many of them are placed in the Spoken English Program (SEP) for a year before they teach. Some need help with pronunciation and idioms, while others need cultural tips, says SEP director Susan Sarwark.

Many are used to an authoritarian classroom, she says, so they find the interaction in America surprising. One new Korean TA commented that his students were lazy because they were always raising their hands. In his country, it would have been selfish to waste a professor's time with questions in class, he told Ms. Sarwark.

That's why she teaches them the American notion that no question is a stupid question. In mock teaching sessions, TAs are evaluated by faculty and undergraduates. American students also volunteer as English-conversation partners.

Ling-Jing Kao, a business PhD student from Taiwan, arrived at OSU in the fall of 2001, but she took SEP classes before teaching the following summer. "My first time teaching, some students do complain about my accent," she says in a phone interview that is easily understandable despite a few trips on grammar. "The most difficult part is how to build up the relationship with students ... because it's not something you can learn from a class. It's more like how you make students comfortable about you." She urges students to tell her immediately if they don't understand something. Her recent evaluations were all positive, she says.

Sarwark says there have been only two formal complaints this year at OSU, which has about 50,000 students. That compares to frequent complaints before the program started in 1986, the same year the state passed a law. "Before that ... there was no uniform training across the university, and it has really helped," she says.

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