Feb. 2017 Advocate: Evaluations don’t improve teaching

LETTER TO THE ADVOCATE

More frequent faculty evaluations do not lead to improved teaching quality

The following letter to The Advocate was received last November, but we were unable to include it in the December 2016 issue for space reasons. –Ed.

Swamped with work, like many of you, I am only now able to respond to Vice Chancellor Kathy Blackwood’s curious proposal and justification with respect to increased faculty evaluations in an email sent by her office to all faculty members entitled “Negotiations Update,” dated Oct 17th 2016.  In her email she states,

“All faculty would be evaluated in the classroom once every three years (similar to all of your peers in the Bay 10) … The District has also proposed student feedback surveys for every class – the norm in higher education … to facilitate continued support for teaching excellence.”

I, and many of my peers, would probably welcome any change that materially improved “teaching excellence” – at least changes that did not come at a cost in excess of the benefit. What puzzled me about this increased faculty evaluation proposal was the lack of evidence provided to support the assertion that more frequent faculty and student evaluations lead to “teaching excellence.”  What at first blush seems logical instead appears, after looking at the researched literature in this area, much less so.  In fact, increasing evaluations might just make education less excellent. Let me provide an example to help illustrate my point. In the Economics of Education Review, Volume 27, Issue 4, Aug 2008, pgs 417-428, one study of student evaluation of faculty found that after:

“Using data on 4 years of courses at American University, regression results show that actual grades have a significant, positive effect on student evaluations of teaching (SETs), controlling for expected grade and fixed effects for both faculty and courses, and for possible endogeneity. Implications are that the SET is a faulty measure of teaching quality and grades a faulty signal of future job performance. Students, faculty, and provost appear to be engaged in an individually rational but socially destructive game of grade inflation centered on the link between SETs and grades.”

This isn’t exactly surprising to those of us long in the teaching tooth.  One can imagine faculty, especially part time faculty hunting for a job, feeling pressure to ensure that her student evaluations were sufficiently more “positive”–at least more positive relative to her peers. “Better student” evaluations could go quite far toward ensuring sufficient enrollments in subsequent semesters.  This pressure to appear positively evaluated could create a sort of grade inflation arms race—hardly an environment conducive to educational excellence. As I said, in the beginning this proposal was curious for its lack of evidence. Perhaps Vice Chancellor Blackwood could let us know from what studies she drew her conclusions about evaluations and teaching excellence.

Paul Roscelli
Professor of Economics and Accounting
Cañada College

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