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

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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. …