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Beyond Merit Pay and Student Evaluations

Beyond Merit Pay and Student Evaluations

September 7, 2007

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. Colleges should have graduates use a computer program to distribute their allocations anonymously.

My proposal would have multiple benefits. It would reduce the tension between tenure and merit pay. Tenure is supposed to insulate professors from retaliation for expressing unpopular views in their scholarship. Many colleges, however, believe that tenured professors don’t have sufficient incentives to work hard, so colleges implement a merit pay system to reward excellence. Alas, merit pay can be a tool that deans and department heads use to punish politically unpopular professors. My proposal, however, provides for a type of merit pay without giving deans and department heads any additional power over instructors. And because the proposal imposes almost no additional administrative costs on anyone, many deans and department heads might prefer it to a traditional merit pay system.

Students, I suspect, would take their distribution decisions far more seriously than they do end-of-semester class evaluations. This is because students are never sure how much influence class evaluations have on teachers’ careers, whereas the link between their distributions and their favorite teachers’ welfare would be clear. Basing merit pay on these distributions, therefore, will be “fairer” than doing so based on class evaluations. Furthermore, these distributions would provide very useful information to colleges in making tenure decisions or determining whether to keep employing a non-tenure track instructor.

The proposal would also reward successful advising. A good adviser can make a student’s academic career. But since advising quality is difficult to measure, colleges rarely factor it into merit pay decisions. But I suspect that many students consider their adviser to be their favorite professor, so great advisers would be well rewarded if graduates distributed $1,000 among faculty.

Hopefully, these $1,000 distributions would get students into the habit of donating to their alma maters. The distributions would show graduates the link between donating and helping parts of the college that they really liked. Colleges could even ask their graduates to “pay back” the $1,000 that they were allowed to give their favorite teachers. To test whether the distributions really did increase alumni giving, a college could randomly choose, say, 10 percent of a graduating class for participation in my plan and then see if those selected graduates did contribute more to the college.

My reward system would help a college attract star teachers. Professors who know they often earn their students adoration will eagerly join a college that lets students enrich their favorite teachers.

Unfortunately, today many star teachers are actually made worse off because of their popularity. Students often spend much time talking to star teachers, make great use of their office hours and frequently ask them to write letters of recommendation. Consequently, star teachers have less time than average faculty members do to conduct research. My proposal, though, would help correct the time penalty that popularity so often imposes on the best teachers.

College trustees and regents who have business backgrounds should like my idea because it rewards customer-oriented professors. And anything that could persuade trustees to increase instructors’ compensation should be very popular among faculty.

But my proposal would be the most popular among students. It would signal to students that the college is ready to trust them with some responsibility for their alma mater’s finances. It would also prove to students that the way they have been treated at college is extremely important to their school.

Bio

James D. Miller is an associate professor of economics at Smith College. He keeps a blog here.

 

 

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