Paying Popular Professors More
Texas A&M is going to pay $10,000 bonuses to professors who get good student evaluations, Inside Higher Ed reports, to the consternation of those who think students are poor judges of professors.
The reason for passing on a chance at $10,000 is that many professors are frustrated by the way the money is being distributed: based solely on student evaluations. Numerous studies have questioned the reliability of student evaluations in measuring actual learning; several of these have noted the tendency of many students to reward professors who give them higher grades. Further complicating the debate is a sense some have that the university is endorsing a consumerist approach to higher education. The chancellor of the A&M system, Michael D. McKinney, told the Bryan-College Station Eagle: “This is customer satisfaction…. It has to do with students having the opportunity to recognize good teachers and reward them with some money.”
That comment didn’t go over well with many professors who believe that their job responsibilities include — at least sometimes — tough grading, or challenging student ideas or generally putting learning before student happiness.
Indeed, it’s arguable that student happiness is precisely not the goal of quality professors. Even the author of the one study that shows such evaluations are useful issues substantial caveats.
[Lawrence M. ] Aleamoni said that even if his research suggests that some student evaluations — designed in ways that differ from the Texas A&M approach — can be reliable, he has always stressed that these evaluations should never be the sole basis for a decision about the quality of someone’s teaching. “Students are only in a position to judge performance in the classroom,” Aleamoni said.
Any real evaluation of teaching, he said, must include peer analysis of such issues as, “How well was the course designed? Are the materials current and up to date? Have they set up the right kinds of standards for the students?” And students aren’t in a position to judge these things, he added.
The problem, unfortunately, is that the goals of the administration and the professoriate are often at odds. Increasingly, decision-makers at universities aren’t former profs who have risen through the ranks as department heads and deans but professional “educrats” with degrees in higher ed administration and who have limited or no teaching experience. Their mission is to make students happy to keep their parents signing the checks every semester.
That said, I’m not unsympathetic to incentivizing good teaching, something that’s particularly hard to do at major research institutions where publishing and grant seeking are the main emphases.
Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, … said it makes much more sense to design rewards that look at the long term and that feature a variety of measures, not just student reviews. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches, has awards for teaching in which student evaluations are considered but only over the long term, and only with the recommendation of a department chair, who would not put forth a nominee known for giving everyone A’s, or hold back on nominating a tough grader. Further, the award requires evidence such as work as a mentor, developing new courses and playing a leadership role on curricular matters.
That sounds like a lot more work than running student evals through a scanner, however, and it’s more likely to result in messy arguments.