Improving Social Mobility Through Purposeful Teaching


Last week, I had the pleasure of joining 23 education leaders in Seattle at a convening hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We were led by Dr. Scott Freeman from the University of Washington. Our mission was to help the foundation consider ways to support faculty members in improving outcomes for low-income students through better teaching. The drive to improve social mobility, a cause I share, is a priority for the Gates Foundation.


First, I will say I enjoyed spending time with smart, intentional people who work to make the world better. I was in the company of dedicated experts from community colleges, universities, advocacy groups, associations, and think tanks. I was the only person in the room representing a company (Faculty Guild).

This is my second such convening. Seven years ago, as CEO of Starfish Retention Solutions, I joined academic and association leaders at the Gates Foundation. I was invited to share my thoughts on advising technology. The Gates Foundation ultimately initiated a series of market acceleration projects that helped introduce, refine, and validate advising (and other key student services) technology. These systems are now used by more than one thousand institutions in the US and enable 3-8% gains in student persistence.


This time, we focused on understanding the things that inhibit faculty members from improving their teaching, being more purposeful about their interaction with their students, and using more evidence-based approaches in their teaching.

We were asked, “What levers could enable significant numbers of faculty (full-time, part-time, tenured, tenure-track, and contingent) to spend more time in these activities, help their students, and be rewarded for their efforts?”

We discussed great work already being done, including research projects and innovation at teaching and learning centers. We also highlighted institutions that have adopted wholesale approaches to student success, including a clear understanding that the most important actions are in the classroom (whether online or face-to-face).


Based on the discussion, I took away five levers that could lead to faculty and their administrations rethinking the value of purposeful teaching:

  1. Use Communities of Practice: Teaching can be lonely. Change is hard. Improving anything is often easier when surrounded by other similar professionals trying to do the same thing. Creating and encouraging communities where faculty members can be authentic in the refinement of their teaching practice can be empowering and should be fostered.

  2. Leverage Professional Associations: Faculty members are employed by a college or university, but they are often part of a professional group with shared values and practices, often centered on their discipline. Engaging these organizations as part of the solution is an important step in separating the notion of content mastery from teaching excellence and, as a result, allowing practice improvement of instruction to be even more expected.

  3. Employ Data and Technology: Faculty members and administrations want to know that what they are doing is making a difference. While respecting the privacy of the classroom and the professional development experience, aggregated data can highlight the positive outcomes that have resulted from the investment and where improvements are possible. It can also help us know which students are not making the progress they should using status quo approaches.

  4. Enhance Talent Recruitment and Development: Like Hollywood, colleges and universities have their own “talent” in the form of faculty members. While they know more about their discipline than most of the world, faculty members may or may not have a deep, practiced knowledge of how to teach what they know. It is not always clear during the hiring process – and course evaluations do not tell you – which faculty members teach well. Once hired, how faculty members are supported, encouraged, and rewarded for expanding their practice of evidence-based teaching approaches needs to be prioritized. A comprehensive human capital and professional development strategy can address these challenges.

  5. Accept External Help for Improvement: Colleges and universities will need help from outside the institution to change. Most institutions will not have the resources to develop new approaches, communities, and practices with fidelity. A third-party organization can bring specialization as well as a collaborative and comparative approach that strengthens all participating institutions. Analogies can be made around how external support and certification in “green” design and construction drive cost-effective, environmentally sustainable buildings. How can we learn from this approach for purposeful teaching?

These ideas may help engage faculty members to move the student success conversation beyond “access and completion,” and re-center us on the importance of the classroom. For the sake of the diverse population of today’s higher ed students who want to do better for themselves and their families, I’m encouraged by the attention that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is bringing to this important area. Institutions, faculty members, and students all benefit from a focus on and dedication to purposeful teaching.