Merit tips for profs

James Miller, a Smith econ professor, has a modest proposal for rewarding teaching excellence: Give graduating seniors $1,000 to distribute to the professors of their choice.

What tools should colleges use to reward excellent teachers? Some rely on teaching evaluations that students spend only a few minutes filling out. Others trust deans and department chairs to put aside friendships and enmities and objectively identify the best teachers. Still more colleges don’t reward teaching excellence and hope that the lack of incentives doesn’t diminish teaching quality.

I propose instead that institutions should empower graduating seniors to reward teaching excellence. Colleges should do this by giving each graduating senior $1,000 to distribute among their faculty.

Most academics commenting on Inside Higher Education are horrified. However, one suggested waiting till students have been out in “the real world” for a few years and have more perspective on which professors really helped them and which were fluffmeisters.

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  1. So do you suppose there will be no link between grades awarded and professors tipped? Not even an economist can be that naive! Well, except maybe one…

  2. Such a system would disproportionately (did I spell that right?) reward senior-level teachers – for two reasons. One, the teachers would be fresher in the student minds, and second, most electives (i.e. fun and interesting courses) are taught by them.
    The school I worked at last year allowed the senior class to “invite” through a vote the teachers to accompany them on their senior picnic. They were told that any teacher, any subject, could go with them. About three quarters of the teachers who went were those that taught high level courses or electives.
    While student input should be included in teacher assessment, placing the merit pay in the hands of the students only is worse than giving the power to the principal only.

  3. The private 6-12 school I taught at the last two years has something a bit like this, and it definitely helps morale. A lot of parents like to give Christmas presents. Some of these are person-to-person, cards, home-baked cookies, and even a bottle of wine an 8th-grader handed me last year in class (if it had been a public school, would he have been arrested?), but it would have been considered crass to give anything of much value.

    To discourage grade-buying the school encourages semi-anonymous gifts. What they do is ask the teacher what particular gift certificate would be most appreciated. Parents may then contribute any amount to any teacher, the school (or the PTA?) combines them, and they sign the card, but we are NOT told the specific amounts. (If I were a parent, I’d be tempted to give $1 each to the entire faculty, but maybe I’m being cynical.)

    I got a G.C. for $76 my first year (not bad for only teaching 8 different students) and more than that the second year. Some parents give to teachers their children don’t even have for class. And there was no apparent connection (positive or negative) between gifts and students who most needed help on their grades.

    By the way, I always ask for a Border’s gift certificate — between the books, the CDs, and the DVDs, that covers just about everything I care about. An impecunious part-timer asked for Target — with Super Targets carrying a full selection of food as well as clothing and other goods, that’s best for a tight budget. The principal was building a new house, so she asked for Home Depot. And so on. No, I don’t know how much other teachers got, and don’t want to know.

  4. Idiotic idea… the kids with the highest grades will get the best jobs and make the most money.

    Colleges serve more as a giant IQ and perseverance test than they do as a valid educational institution.

  5. Forget the money….I’d just appreciate it if the students who found my classes valuable came back and TOLD me what was most useful that they learned. That works two ways – I could improve my teaching by emphasizing the “useful” stuff and dropping the “less valuable” stuff, and it would make me feel like what I’m doing has some kind of a beneficial impact…

  6. Wouldn’t you first have to determine the value of the kid’s opinions?

    Kids may be a useful source of information but then they may not. Or they may have useful opinions in some areas but not others.

    This idea has no objective component of measurement by which kids could make determinations which means they’d develop their own criteria or just punt and award their points to the cutest teacher.

    Also, since there’s no reason for the kids to be thoughtful and accurate it’s not particularly reasonable to assume they will be.

  7. What an idiotic idea.

    Gee, seniors will offer to profs and suggest a higher grade to receive the funds. The others will give it to students who made them feel good. They will have no idea which professors were the most valuable at the time of graduation.