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.
Our recent annual “America’s Best Churches” issue drew more than the usual deluge of reader and parishioner complaints. Hence it behooves me as editor of U.S. News & World Report to again offer a public explanation of our much-misunderstood church rankings methodology.
In thanking those who took the time to write, I would remind all in the community of believers that our rankings are intended as a public service to aid spiritual consumers in making one of life’s highest-impact personal choices. We claim no infallibility in our rankings. We strive to provide accurate, user-friendly data to allow seekers of quality worship to do their homework and grasp truth with full confidence that they are comparing apples to apples. Yes, we visibly spread the word about the handiness of our shopper’s tool, but we can’t be held responsible if certain churches choose, for example, to display, as a recruiting come-on, their U.S. News ranking on a banner atop their steeple.
We reject the assertion that church reputations are made or broken based on tables published once a year in our magazine. Nor do we find any signs that “America’s Best Churches” encourages a “one-size-fits-all” path to the mountaintop. Frankly, any American who would build an entire cosmological belief system on a two-or-three-point rise in a church’s year-to-year U.S. News ranking should probably stop, take a deep breath and meditate a bit on values, personal style, and the theistic limits of magazine journalism.
As proof of our good faith, we have always been willing to consider critiques of our research metrics and make warranted adjustments in our process for arriving at the rankings. That is why we have urged restraint upon those outspoken theologians who in recent months have been encouraging church ministers to boycott our informational surveys: A boycott will only make it more difficult for our researchers to compile a full portrait of America’s religious marketplace and present all good-faith competitors on a level laying field.
Neither our openness to methodological challenges nor our efforts to keep our influence in perspective, however, should be taken as a sign that houses of worship shouldn’t continue to seek ways to improve. Indeed, many of our reader complaints stem from feelings among congregants that our surveys failed to capture such measurable steps forward as energy-efficient stained-glass windows, form-fitting cushioned pews, and imported communion wine.
Some critics charge that our emphasis on counting average Sunday service attendance unfairly favors urban congregations over rural ones. But in recent years we have refined the formula for balancing the actual turnout with the local population’s potential. And we’ve enhanced accuracy by verifying the numbers reported by church secretaries with spot-checking through on-site visits by independent observers.
As “America’s Best Churches” has evolved over the past decade, we have adopted recommendations from our “loving critics” that we loosen some of the criteria that give higher rankings to the more doctrinaire denominations. We trust that this year’s methodology no longer penalizes parishes that favor folk masses or Christian rock over traditional organ music.
Our much-maligned “enforcement of dogma” measurement, which detractors complain is biased against Unitarians and favors Catholics and evangelicals, continues to prompt soul-searching among our nonsectarian team of clerical advisers. Suggestions for further improvements are welcome.
Matters of faith are -- don’t we know it -- highly subjective. The only dogma we maintain at U.S. News is a staffwide conviction that theology consumers who’re feeling their way to divinity should not be left to approach the deity without an up-to-date and well-packaged scorecard.
One admittedly self-interested point: It is true that “America’s Best Churches” has become one of our brand name’s top publishing successes. But as a private corporation, we don’t consider that a reason to do penance. We are hard at work on the first edition of “America’s Best Mosques and Temples.” We think you’ll find it enlightening.
Charlie Clark is senior editor and director of press relations at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.