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June 23, 2010

Letting students set teacher pay is NOT conservative

The market is a fabuous thing, the best mechanism for raising standards of living and allocating capital. But it's hardly perfect, and it doesn't work in all situations and for every product. Too often zealots push the free-market concept over the edge of the cliff. Example 1: Electricity deregulation. Example 2: Subprime mortgages. Example 3: Executive pay.

Example 4 comes from Texas, where the Texas Public Policy Foundation is promoting the idea of rewarding college professors with "up to $10,000 based on anonymous student evaluations, called 'customer satisfaction,'" according to The Eagle. Texas A&M is already doing it.

It's the "customer" model gone berserk. College kids and their parents pay thousands for an educational "product," the reformers are thinking. Why, they're no different than somebody buying bread at Safeway. They should be able to make their preferences known! Let those 19-year-old customers rule!

Writing for the NYT, Stanley Fish has the appropriate response:

If a waiter asks me, “Was everything to your taste, sir?”, I am in a position to answer him authoritatively (if I choose to). When I pick up my shirt from the dry cleaner, I immediately know whether the offending spot has been removed. But when, as a student, I exit from a class or even from an entire course, it may be years before I know whether I got my money’s worth, and that goes both ways.

What's surprising is that people who think of themselves as conservative are associated with the idea of paying teachers based on student preferences. Conservatism used to be about having youth defer to authority figures such as teachers. Conservatism is about responding to challenges with discipline and hard work, even if the taskmaster meting out assignments isn't your best friend. Conservatism is about having schools, churches and other institutions mold sometimes recalcitrant youths, building character to turn out productive members of society.

But the Texas Public Policy Foundation wants to put students in the driver's seat. SDS and the other lefty student radicals who tried to hijack college administrations in the 1960s would surely approve. Coming next from the TPPF: Letting U.S. Marine recruits -- the "customers" at Parris Island boot camp -- rate their drill instructors?

UPDATE: Evidence here, via Greg Mankiw:

[S]tudents appear to reward higher grades in the introductory course but punish professors who increase deep learning (introductory course professor value‐added in follow‐on courses). Since many U.S. colleges and universities use student evaluations as a measurement of teaching quality for academic promotion and tenure decisions, this latter finding draws into question the value and accuracy of this practice.
Posted by Jay Hancock at 6:00 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Education
        

Comments

Why is it that these schemes to pay based on some "test", be it a satisfaction evaluation or a sate assessment, always measure the service providers and not the policy makers who have compensation packages that are many times greater and with no direct accountability? This hierarchy of power and influence seems un-American.

Two things:

1. Texas A&M has the rep of huge party school in the central plains, and the administrators know this. Admins giving the impression that the campus is student-friendly through this frankly minor policy isn't surprising.

2. This is really where the idiosyncrasies and contradictions with "conservatism" come to the fore. Being "conservative" doesn't mean that one behaves one's self all the time, nor does it shelter anyone from idiocy if a buck can be made (or saved) somehow out of the deal. A serious look even at political conservatism in Texas through legislation indicates some very un-conservative legislation. So I wouldn't get too caught up in labels, or putting any political or social boundaries on this. Texans do what they want, whenever they want, and call it whatever they want. I just know I never want to live there.

You sound like Paul Krugman in this article. Look, if I want to read his irrational tripe, I'll visit nytimes.com. Be original!

Well my, my landy! Wouldn't I love to get a position teaching remedial English or math to those students attending college on Federal grants or deferred student loans! Not only would I make a quick ten grand, but I betcha their evaluations would earn me tenure in two terms, max! And because Obama promises that all new FAFSA loans will be forgiven in just a few years no-one will ever have to pay for it, right?

Teacher quality is an important factor in student success in the classroom in both public and higher education. The proposal to use student evaluations as part of an effort to reform Texas higher education recognizes this fact and seeks to reward the best educators. In the past couple of days, criticism from outside the state has appeared – criticism which ignores several key parts of the proposal.

• The program is voluntary. Faculty members are not required to participate. The plan rewards those teachers based upon evaluations and the number of students taught. This encourages faculty to teach as many students as possible.

• Existing evaluation forms submitted at the end of the year are used to rate the teachers. These evaluations are typically conducted before final grades are awarded. Multiple studies have shown that students’ ratings are not biased by their likely grades, thus limiting teachers’ incentives to award higher grades in an effort to secure a higher evaluation and thus, a bonus. Additionally, all faculty members are encouraged to agree to limit high grades and grade inflation when first joining the program.

• Studies show that student evaluations are effective measures of teacher performance, especially when the goals and expectations for a course are clearly laid out.

• These bonuses would be available to all teachers, not just tenured professors. As we showed in a 2009 article, 70% of courses taught in public universities are taught by non-tenure-track faculty, including graduate teaching assistants. The average tenured professor teaches fewer than three courses per year. Non-tenured faculty normally earn far less than tenured faculty, often as little as $10 per hour. Those teachers who do the most and best work of educating our youth should be rewarded for such.

The criticisms of student evaluations also ignore the fact that these are only one part of a much larger reform plan that encourages students, parents, and taxpayers to become more involved in improving higher education at public universities.

The Foundation has no problem with sound academic research; after all, we are researchers ourselves. But as important as academic research is, it is secondary to the primary goal of educating students. These are public universities funded by public tax dollars established to educate our citizens.

So while there may be value to “highly qualified scholars working on problems that may have no practical payoff except the unquantifiable payoff of advancing our understanding of something in philosophy or nature that has long been a mystery,” the public should rightly expect accountability from these institutions for the tax dollars being spent. And unlike the students who the critics say “may not realize [the value of a course] for decades, the public is pretty savvy at understanding immediately the value it is getting in return for its money.

A few comments to the comment by Bill Peacock (presumably from the Texas Public Policy Foundation):

He states: “Multiple studies have shown that students’ ratings are not biased by their likely grades, thus limiting teachers’ incentives to award higher grades in an effort to secure a higher evaluation and thus, a bonus.”
This is seriously naive and incorrect. It may be true that the final grade is not necessarily the prime predictor, but the student’s perception that they can achieve a good final grade is one of the most important predictors of good student evaluations. How do you give students this perception? By giving out loads of bonus points for quizzes, extra questions on exams, additional assignments etc. These do almost nothing to increase learning, but make the students feel that with a little more busy work, they have a shot at a good grade.

Peacock: “Additionally, all faculty members are encouraged to agree to limit high grades and grade inflation when first joining the program.”

Naive squared. Would a beginning assistant professor on tenure track, or a part-timer fearing the axe is really limiting grade inflation, if he/she well knows that their job is on the line? Or that they miss out on a juicy bonus?

Peacock: “Studies show that student evaluations are effective measures of teacher performance, especially when the goals and expectations for a course are clearly laid out.”

What does teacher performance mean in this context? Customer satisfaction? Students are satisfied when they have the perception they learned something and have the perception that they have been treated fairly and generously. To be sure, these things are not unimportant. However, they do not know if they really learned anything, until they take the next class, or years later when they actually need that knowledge. Student evaluations do not measure at all what students learned.

Peacock: “The criticisms of student evaluations also ignore the fact that these are only one part of a much larger reform plan that encourages students, parents, and taxpayers to become more involved in improving higher education at public universities.”

He conveniently forgot to mention faculty on the list of people who should be involved in improving higher education. As a matter of fact that is what we do, day in, day out. Taxpayers? Should Joe Taxpayer decide what is taught in history class, or what the curriculum in physics should be? Should he decide that we should not teach evolution? Did Jo Taxpayer spent 22 years in school to get a science Ph.D. and then several more years as a low-paid post-doc? Is his judgment on quantum mechanics just as sound as that of a physics professor?

Peacock: “But as important as academic research is, it is secondary to the primary goal of educating students.”

Being engaged in top-notch, cutting-edge research is the most powerful tool for education. What do people like Peacock want? Thinkers and innovators, or parrots?

Peacock: “These are public universities funded by public tax dollars established to educate our citizens.”

Yes, and basing teacher pay and advancement to a large part on student evaluations will assure that these citizens will receive less and less of that education they want. To be sure, teaching will evolve to make people believe that they learned more, but in the end, you either know something or you don’t. This is not measured by student evaluations. Learning is hard, sometimes uncomfortable work. Teachers who make students work get bad evaluations.

Peacock: “highly qualified scholars working on problems that may have no practical payoff except the unquantifiable payoff of advancing our understanding of something in philosophy or nature that has long been a mystery”

These things that Mr. Peacock makes fun of here are typically the basis of tomorrow’s economy. We have seen with the likes of GM or Chrysler where the short-sighted thinking that is espoused here leads. Universities are exactly the places to do these things, because they are the ONLY places where such things are still done.

It is clear that Peacock and his ilk are like the proverbial carpenter: When everything looks like a nail, a hammer is the tool for everything. For them the nail is money. They live in some kind of stone-age economics, where they can’t see that universities and education cannot be measured only by how satisfied the ‘customers’ are or how money is spent. A university is not a business. It is the intellectual center of a nation.

As an aside, simple economics will tell you that if you keep faculty from pursuing research and load them up with 3-4 classes a semester, the best and brightest faculty will simply quit teaching and research altogether. Especially in the sciences and engineering, you can on average make 50-100% more money in industry than in academia. Why are we in academia? Because we believe that pursuing basic research is an important endeavor, both for the nation and for educating students, and because we enjoy teaching without bean counters breathing down our neck.

Success is measured, in the long term, by how successful a nation is in innovation and reacting to large challenges. In this vein, the US is still number one – thanks to all these pencil heads in the universities who worry about abstruse things like “2D electron gasses” or “spintronics”, which may well be the basis for tomorrow’s electronics industry.

Peacock: “the public is pretty savvy at understanding immediately the value it is getting in return for its money.”

Since even an educated person like Peacock does not understand it, I am skeptical Jo Taxpayer would either. Which of course, is a call to action for faculty everywhere to spend more time to explain why they are doing what they are doing.

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About Jay Hancock
Jay Hancock has been a financial columnist for The Baltimore Sun since 2001. He has also been The Baltimore Sun's diplomatic correspondent in Washington and its chief economics writer. Before moving to Baltimore in 1994 he worked for The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk and The Daily Press of Newport News.

His columns appear Tuesdays and Sundays.
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