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Seven breakthrough solutions

Taylor Wolken:The Texas Public Policy Foundation's solutions: Part Two

Published: Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 21:07


The Battalion

Solution number two in the "seven breakthrough solutions" has been a point of contention between faculty and the board of regents as it is eerily similar to the Student Led Awards for Teaching Excellence commonly called SLATE. Though Chancellor McKinney initiated the program in 2008 designed to reward teachers for excellence in the classroom.

Chancellor McKinney modeled the SLATE program off a similar one at The University of Oklahoma, which was lobbied for by the father of Jeff Sandefer, the writer of the "seven breakthrough solutions."

Professor Jamie Grunlan, who gave an impassioned speech May 26 to the board of regents, repeatedly called for an end to the SLATE program, which brings us to solution number two.

In solution two of the TPPF's breakthrough solutions, not the SLATE program, up to 25 percent of the tenure track faculty, lecturers and teaching assistants, could receive cash rewards based off student evaluations and class size. Professors rated in the top 3 percent could receive up to $10,000, those outside the top 3 percent but in the top ten would receive up to $5,000 and those out of the top 10 percent but in the top 25 percent would receive up to $2,500.

The intention of the bonuses is to encourage the faculty to be explicit about the learning objectives with their students and create an incentive for good professors to teach more students. Enrollment in the program would be voluntary and there would be an option to have a mandated number of A's and B's to prevent evaluations from becoming a popularity contest with the added benefit of "curbing grade inflation."

Solution number two further speculates that it could "likely pay for itself through efficiency" since the largest rewards go to a small percentage of teachers and those teachers would seek to teach more students.

To reiterate an argument from solution one, student evaluations are not a measure of teacher effectiveness or efficiency. They are an evaluation of each student's individual bias. A good evaluation could mean the class was easy, the teacher was nice, the workload was light or the student learned a lot among other things. A bad evaluation may mean the class was hard, the workload was oppressive, the teacher wasn't likeable, or the student didn't learn.

A teacher can be effective with a light workload and a dismal personality and a teacher can be ineffective with a heavy workload and a great personality.

Student evaluations are an ambiguous measure. You can't incentivize effective teaching when the awards aren't based on effective teaching.

Linking the size of the awards to class size is a perverse incentive. Small class sizes has always been a selling point at A&M. Mays business school began differential tuition years ago in large part to keep class sizes down. It wouldn't make sense to create one policy to keep class sizes low and another to encourage larger classes.

Increased class sizes, even for "effective" teachers, isn't a slam dunk idea. Larger class sizes necessarily result in less one on one time with professors. This could cause teachers to lean more heavily on TA's who may not be as effective. It could lead to more scantron tests as teachers grow their classes for bonuses.  It could lead to fewer assignments, shorter tests, or smaller course loads so teachers can still handle grading.

As far as encouraging the faculty to be explicit about learning objectives, there is already a state law requiring that classes have a syllabus and it be posted online. Let's not pretend that this bonus program is going to create a benefit that already exists.

Voluntary enrollment is fair enough but having the option to have the number of A's and B's mandated seems off the mark. The only thing worse than falling just shy of an A or B is to fall just shy because only 10 percent of the class could get A's and you were the 11th percent. Perhaps I am old fashioned but the grade you get is the grade you earned. If you are worried about grade inflation perhaps there shouldn't be a cash reward for teachers who get good evaluations.

Encouraging excellence among our professors isn't a bad thing but any incentive program should make sure it actually encouraging "effectiveness and efficiency." This solution places too much value on student evaluations and relies on rosy assumptions and you know what happens when you assume.


Taylor Wolken is a junior economics major and Editor in Chief of The Battalion

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