said by Ellis in No Country for Old Men, and brought to mind when reading Fish’s discussion here of the recommendations by the Texas Public Policy Foundation apparently being implemented at Texas A&M and being considered elsewhere in the state, as reported here. I hope to be wrong, but my pessimistic side always reminds my optimistic side of the track-record argument…
Fish takes the opportunity to whine about teaching evaluations in response, and shows a common epistemic foible in the process. Here is a well-taken point: teaching evaluations are not the Grand Unified Metric for finding out who the best teachers are, and committees and think tanks that make recommendations focusing on this area alone are doing nothing more than GUMchewing. But no one should think that student opinion has no bearing whatsoever on the question of whether quality teaching is occurring. The debate should be over the weight assigned to this one piece of evidence, not whether it is (incremental) evidence at all. (And efforts should be made to filter the raw numbers by discounting the effect of handing out cookies on the day of evaluation or by giving students reasons to expect really high grades in the course…) (One point of agreement, though: I’ve always thought the best time to give student evaluations is about 20-30 years after the course is over, qualified of course in terms of the problem of not remembering.)
But focusing on teaching evaluations, their history, and current and future role isn’t the right focus. It isn’t what brings Ellis’s remark to mind. There are deeper signs of inanity.
Here, in summary form, are the seven reforms:
1. Measure teaching efficiency and effectiveness and publicly recognize extraordinary teachers.
2. Implement a voluntary program that gives cash bonuses to instructors based on student evaluations.
3. Split teaching and research budgets.
4. Require evidence of teaching skill for tenure.
5. Use “results-based” contracts with students to measure quality.
6. Put state funding directly into the hands of students.
7. Create results-based accrediting alternatives.
Some of these are not reforms, but are already being done. For example, hardly any institutions of any quality don’t require evidence of teaching skill for tenure. Moreover, I doubt there are many universities that don’t have a bevy of prizes and public recognition for extraordinary teachers.
But then there are the details. Here’s one, quoting from the second linked source above:
It calls for most tenure appointments to be given to teachers who have taught “on average three classes per semester and thirty students per class for the seven or more years that a teacher is on the tenure track,” and for student satisfaction ratings to determine teaching effectiveness. Average teacher ratings, the reform states, must be at least a 4.5 on a 5.0 scale.
Both requirements show that the members of the Foundation in question are incompetent, from some simple points such as the number of years prior to tenure for most institutions to more substantive issues regarding class size and what normal teacher ratings look like. Imagine a change in graduation requirements, so that curving of grades was not allowed and no student could graduate without a GPA of at least 3.5 on a 4 point scale. That is an appropriate analogy for the teacher rating requirement. I’ve seen lots of university-wide numbers on teaching evaluations, and a recommendation like this, informed by the realities in question, could only be made if one is willing to assume that most university instruction is really bad. One might wish for some evidence for that assumption before endorsing the recommendation. Finally, the average class size recommendation is laughable, and ignorant almost beyond belief, apparently unaware of disciplinary differences in terms of how instruction ought to be handled and what quality instruction demands in terms of contact moments between instructors and students. To make a recommendation focusing on the minimal number tolerable is egregious.
It makes me want to start a school. Give me public funding. The school is for offspring of idiots at this public policy foundation. When they show up, I remind them that this school is excellent. We fire every teacher their kids don’t like. And, most important, each child is in a large class, which of course, is a A REALLY GOOD THING. In fact, the teachers hound me every day to give them more students: “three figures yes! four figures, better!” Everything is bigger in Texas you know.