Evaluation fixation

by David Alm on June 16, 2011

In his critique of higher education — how it began in this country versus what it’s become — for last week’s New Yorker, Louis Menand makes clear a few unfortunate facts of college today. Namely, that too many people go, and that many of them aren’t ready to be there.

Thus, it’s incumbent on their teachers to either weed them out, or, more likely, continue passing them through the system because of forces beyond their control. Such forces include a system that prizes student evaluations to the point where professors become like waiters at an Applebee’s restaurant, the students are their customers, and those end-of-semester evaluations are the comment cards attached to the check.

What do you think the professor’ s mo st likely to do? Remain tough, rigorous, and uncompromising in his st andards? Call it tough love. Or play the good guy, currying favor with his students with daily doses of positive reinforcement, affirmation that everyone is smart, and assurances that yes, you really are a great writer! Waiters may hate their customers, but they don’t let on if they want to keep their jobs.

I’m not saying that professors should hate their students. Far from it. I think professors should love their students, and in loving them, help them discover their potential by holding them to high standards. This is what ostensibly happens at “good” schools — why can’t it be just as common at all the others? In other words, why aren’t they all “good” schools?

Menand’s essay covers much more ground than evaluations, of course, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle. Data released this week shows that only 37% of high school graduates in New York State are prepared for college, and in parts of New York City, the percentage dips below 10. If the kids are not all right, to borrow a phrase from Pete Townsend, maybe it’s their teachers’ fault. Because if students aren’t mastering the skills they require to succeed, but are passing through the educational system regardless, something has to change.

But change is unlikely as long as more and more professors work on a contingency basis. Currently, only one third of the people teaching in American colleges and universities are tenured or tenure-track; the rest are adjuncts, part-time lecturers, and short-term contracted educators. Their jobs no more secure than a server’s at Applebee’s.

Darryl June 16, 2011 at 9:52 am

My wife went back to college as an adult and graduated cum laude. Her work ethic was incredible and she studied hard. Yet, she held her professors accountable to teach her. She gave great evaluations to great teachers, even when they were difficult. The teachers she judged as poor quality were the ones that had no communication skills or were completely incapable of teaching! She had one accounting teacher who did not even know how to use a business calculator! When another professor filled in for this Dean of the Department he was amazed and shocked at the fact no one had been taught on these calculators! There is a huge difference between a demanding professor and a poor teacher.

My wife and I believe in the law of the teacher/student: “It is the job of the student to learn and it is the job of the teacher to teach.”

When I went to grad school I also held my teachers accountable in the same way and made no apologies about it. What we both have seen is just the opposite–most younger students don’t fill out the evaluation forms or they fill them out in a positive way. They do not wish to fool with the whole process.

Agreed there are far too many students who are not ready for higher education. However, I am reluctant to blame the system of rating teachers for the problem or even part of the problem. The truth is, I am paying their salary when I pay tuition.

Darryl June 16, 2011 at 9:53 am

sorry. misspelled cum laud. 8^)

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