educrats, evaluating teachers, Grade inflation, higher education, human nature, Jesse Stommel, Nancy Bunge, remedial classes, respect is earned, Sara Goldrick-Rab, secondary education, transformative education
As the new school year approaches, education has been much on my mind. I’ll have a number or original articles soon, but for now, just a reminder of the issues from an article I posted in January of 2019. I’ve updated it a bit; here we go:
Supervision—and teaching–in contemporary education has devolved, in many places, to farce. It no longer serves as a means for principals to ensure teachers are qualified, capable and dedicated. Instead, it is a means of forcing destructive ideas and methods on teachers–things that hinder rather than help–while making it possible for principals to avoid exposing their own ignorance about teaching in particular, and human beings in general. As a result, teaching is far from what it once was.
This is true in secondary education as well as in higher education. Let us say, for example, a brilliant new method local educrats discovered at a conference is requiring secondary teachers to hang large sheets of paper on walls. Students will be forced to write comments about lessons on stick on notes, which they will stick to the wall mounted paper. Most kids could not care less about such things, so their comments will be anything but carefully considered and heartfelt. They will contribute nothing to the process of learning and will not remotely reflect what, if anything, the kids have learned.
Educrats, believing they have, once again, discovered a miraculous method that will transform educational achievement, for principals to base their teacher evaluation largely on whether those sheets of paper and stick on notes are present. That’s far easier than actually knowing something about the various disciplines taught in any high school, or about professional teaching and the nature of contemporary students. Evaluating a teacher on their actual knowledge, ability and performance is a much more difficult and time-consuming matter. Paper present/absent is so much easier, and since it’s transformational, it can’t possible be wrong.
Educrats also employ another simplistic, and fundamentally unreliable method: asking students about what their teachers are doing. Let us say ecucrats are very fond of data of all kinds—and they are–and they demand whenever data is produced–by a test, etc.–teachers discuss it with students. To ensure this is done, they’ll periodically and randomly ask students if a teacher has spent hours talking about that data.
What’s wrong with that? Mostly, kids don’t care. They want to know if they passed or not, and high achievers care about their relative scores. They can barely be bothered to pay attention to the reading; they surely don’t want to talk about data points. Also, it puts children in the position of supervising their teachers. It gives them power over their teachers, and some will use it maliciously. In effect, they are doing a principal’s job. Because they care so little about such things, they can easily forget they ever talked about the data. Relying on children to supervise professionals is unethical and destructive to children and teachers.
It’s arguably worse in higher education, as Nancy Bunge, a professor emerita in the humanities at Michigan State University writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
Research on student evaluations of teaching suggests that the gender and age bias most colleges pride themselves on avoiding contaminate those evaluations, along with other nonacademic factors — like “sexiness.” Since many institutions of higher learning use these surveys to determine whether faculty keep their jobs or get raises, their unreliability matters. But the impact these student reviews have on the quality of education raises even more troubling issues: Students give better evaluations to people who grade them more generously.
Instructors who figure this out could give higher grades to secure tenure or a bigger raise. Grade inflation offers persuasive evidence that some faculty members have succumbed to this temptation. In other words, standards decline, so students learn less as the cost of their education rises. Ironically, this happens because students are now considered customers, so colleges want to keep them happy.
This is the human nature factor educrats seem unable—or unwilling–to recognize or understand. Admitting people so fundamentally unprepared for college as to require a year or more of high-school level, remedial classes only exacerbates the problem. As I’ve often written, these mandatory classes provide no credit, but cost as much as classes that do. Very bad for students–great for colleges. Educrats can’t figure out if students are given control over the employment and futures of their teachers, teachers will cater to students? They’re truly that stupid? Perhaps they’re merely that corrupt.
Evaluations encourage students to place total responsibility for the quality of their education on their instructors. I first encountered them in 1968, when I began my first full-time job, as an instructor of American literature. I had just finished a year as a graduate teaching assistant, during which students debated the reading among themselves and did not hesitate to argue with me once class began. I enjoyed these encounters enormously and suspect my students did, too. So, I was shocked in my first American-literature class as an instructor to discover that the students refused to participate in class, even after I threatened them with a longer syllabus unless they did so.
I got a terrible rating, and its publication humiliated me. [skip]
As the decades have passed and students have continued to appraise their instructors, they have come to assume that they know at least as much as the people the college asks them to rank; after all, they sometimes don’t do the reading or participate in class, but their grades rise all the same.
Even when I was in college in the 1400’s, I was one of the few students that read every assignment, and did it on time. Even many of my fellow English majors didn’t do the reading, though they were a bit shy about admitting it. Not so contemporary students. They’re proud of it. Of course, back in those days, we didn’t evaluate teachers. That was the job of their administrators, who presumably, knew enough to know what they were doing in that pursuit. Of course, they had a great deal more time then, as at the colleges where I obtained my bachelors and did graduate work, the diversity/inclusion insanity was not yet firmly entrenched.
In contemporary secondary classrooms, teachers quickly find students are not readers. With few exceptions, if I wanted to ensure kids read anything I assigned, we had to read it together in class—out loud. These are the kids that will eventually be accepted in colleges, mostly because their checks don’t bounce.
Bunge also taught in Europe:
At the University of Vienna, I arrived convinced that students would pay full attention only to a class conducted in discussion, so I found it uncomfortable to stand at an elevated podium and lecture. But the students not only listened, they reacted so powerfully that I became fixated on making my next lecture better than the last. I resumed this practice when I taught in Belgium and Germany. The more attentive my students, the more enthusiasm I had for teaching as well as possible.
During my teaching assignment in Germany, I invited my students to help themselves to my books at the end of my stay. One student couldn’t believe his luck: I had not yet given away my copy of Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, a book that won the National Book Award. I had stopped teaching it to my American students because so many complained that it bored them.
At the beginning of every school year, I told my students the boredom had been professionally removed from my classroom. Any boredom they experienced, they brought with them.
I have heard American students boast of never doing the reading, as though this certifies their brilliance; why would they bother to study work assigned by their inferiors? And why should American students listen to me when they inform the administration whether I have done my job? [skip]
But, ultimately, the unearned arrogance encouraged by the heavy reliance on student evaluations helps produce passive, even contemptuous students who undermine the spirit of the class and lower its quality for everyone. All students deserve better.
They do, but if they’re convinced they’re superior intellects, how could they possibly understand that? By all means, take the link and read the whole article. Let us now turn to a response, also in The Chronicle Of Higher Education, by two contemporary professors, Sara Goldrick-Rab of Temple University and Jesse Stommel of the University of Mary Washington. They have downed the whole bathtub of progressive Kool Aid, and disagree with Bunge.
Today’s college students are radically different from the students occupying college classrooms even a decade ago. The expansion of education that propelled widespread positive change through American communities in the 20th century has reached beyond high school, and more people than ever before understand the importance of postsecondary education in all its forms.
Indeed. They are unprepared, surly, absolutely secure in their boundless brilliance—after all, they’re adept at writing fake comments on stick-on notes–believe the world owes them comfort and a living, and their arrogance knows few, if any, bounds.
For broader participation to lead to positive outcomes — for example, the completion of degrees without huge debt burdens — students must have good experiences in the classroom. This is especially important yet incredibly difficult as the new economics of college are compromising the time, energy, and money that students and many of their professors have to spend on quality learning.
The “new economics” include ever increasing tuition, ever decreasing quality, and billions spent on bloated, arrogant, and navel-gazing diversity bureaucracies.
These are the core challenges of college today — and yet they are too often ignored. Instead, symptoms of those problems dominate air time, as the stereotype persists of ‘academically adrift’ ‘snowflakes’ ‘coddled’ by their universities. Consider the recent essay by Nancy Bunge, “Students Evaluating Teachers Doesn’t Just Hurt Teachers. It Hurts Students,” which takes on student evaluations. Bunge contends the “unearned arrogance encouraged by the heavy reliance on student evaluations helps produce passive, even contemptuous students who undermine the spirit of the class and lower its quality for everyone.
These are not ‘symptoms,” but the reality in too much of contemporary higher education.
Her enemy appears to be sites like the often-lamented Rate My Professors, but her piece also attacks the students themselves, and reinforces a set of assertions largely drawn from one influential yet extremely narrow study, Academically Adrift, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. The limited learning lamented by the authors is said to be linked to insufficiently challenging instructors, and according to Bunge those instructors are not demanding more of their students because they want to get good grades. She cites a Chronicle survey in which faculty members claim that students are ‘harder to teach’ these days. The overall narrative suggests we should feel sorry for the faculty. If only they could have more-engaged students to teach.
If my high school teaching experience is any indicator, kids are harder to teach, and more demanding of doing far less then students of the past to obtain high grades–when they care about grades at all. Teachers that demand true effort and excellence are often subjected to pressures, subtle and gross, to dumb down the curriculum and at the very least, to avoid failing anyone. It is reasonable to expect students steeped in this culture will be no less demanding in college
We agree that Rate My Professors and similar efforts to assess students’ experiences with the faculty are flawed. There are extreme inequities reflected in the results, and sexism, racism, ableism, and homophobia have a direct impact on review, promotion, and tenure processes for instructors at colleges. But that does not mean that students, nor student evaluations, are to blame.
We need more, not fewer, ways to listen for the voices of students reflecting on education. We need more, not fewer, ways to include students in conversations about the future of teaching and learning in college. These conversations cannot begin by sending a signal to students that their voices don’t matter.
In other words, the work of higher education — as with all of education — has to begin with a deep respect for students.
No, it does not and cannot. Teachers must treat students professionally and with civility, but respect is earned—every day. It is given only to those worthy of it. Colleges exist to educate those in need of education and intellectual growth, not to cater to their neuroses. Which students deserve respect? Those that pay attention, attend every class, do all the work, participate intelligently in class, and demonstrate good character. Goldrick-Rab and Stommel are obviously believers in catering to the whims of special snowflakes, respect demanders whose innate brilliance should determine what they are willing to allow professors to teach and how to teach it.
College has become the place America loves to hate, and college professors and students are the unwitting victims. It doesn’t require much cynicism to recognize this as part of a political plan to destabilize or even reverse the democratization of higher education.
Ah yes. The problem with today’s universities is the evil conservatives who think colleges ought to actually teach instead of playing politics and allowing the least intelligent and virtuous students to run the asylums. People like Goldrick-Rab and Stommel don’t like criticism. They like deplorables who pay their salaries and fund their universities having any say in how they are run even less. They’re not qualified!
But we can do better. As educators, we need to lead the way and design our pedagogical approaches for the students we have, not the students we wish we had. This requires approaches that are responsive, inclusive, adaptive, challenging, and compassionate.
Right. The old model of allowing people with doctorates in their fields to presume to know something worthy of passing on to students is so outmoded. Demanding students do the reading, do all classwork, pay attention instead of texting and surfing the Internet, actually participate in discussions, which they can’t do because they haven’t done the reading, and even less of the thinking, and actually showing their instructors required deference is certainly not “responsive, inclusive, adaptive, challenging, and compassionate.”
These days, colleges appear far more interested in praising, reinforcing and catering to the invaluable feelings of their students. What is this actual accomplishment about which you speak? That’s violence! I feel oppressed and unsafe!
If students already know it all, why do they need college?
Take the link and read Goldrick-Rab and Stommel’s article. You will see there, gentle readers, the demented, politicized reasoning that drives the contemporary university, and more and more, is leaking down into the public schools.
As the 2020-2021 school year begins–in some fashion–is your school district, gentle readers, actually focusing on teaching? Is the first priority of local educrats maximizing class time, or are they concerned about data and stick-on notes? Do they care about the development of each student’s brain, or about their feelings?