Playing the System for Grades

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Children learn early that extra money is earned by helping around the house, taking care of family members, or running errands. If teenagers like school, parents use several incentives to encourage positive outcomes. For good grades, parents are willing to pay more money for better schools, nicer clothes, and new cars that come with a note – the better the grades, the better the car. The pay-for-performance idea may be relatively new to the U.S. healthcare system, but teenagers learn quickly that a car is on the line if they don’t deliver the grades.
Once in the university classroom; however, the reward system appears to change. In the classroom, these young adults observe their professors playing the system for good grades, that is, good teaching evaluations. In most universities, faculty members are rewarded for good performance in the classroom, as well as for other scholarly activities. Eventually, faculty members are granted tenure (i.e., the right to keep their position forever) based on good performance over time, usually six to seven years.
For untenured assistant professors, pressures to get good evaluations are so great that failure to obtain these positive student evaluations will likely result in job loss. On one side, faculty members have to put up with all kinds of behavior from students. Examples include listening to and accepting weak excuses for missing class, forgiving the use of cell phones, computers, and games that disrupt classes despite policies against their use, and giving easy make-up exams because hard exams are viewed as “not helping students” when it is time for students to evaluate faculty performance.
To survive under this system, a system that never existed in the classroom twenty-five or more years ago, faculty members have to lower the standards. For example, if the material is too hard, some students may use their poor performance as an excuse to downgrade professors on teaching evaluations. Thus, the mind set for faculty is to give more “As,” the students will be happy, faculty evaluations will be better, and everyone is happy. Remember when Summa Cum Laude and Magna Cum Laude used to mean something? Are students really getting smarter or is the process for evaluating faculty flawed, thus causing these titles to be given out like candy at Halloween? One faculty member shared a story about a student entering the office and complaining that he or she needed two more points to make Magna Cum Laude. The student was very upset, yelled at the professor, and finally yelled out loud “anyone can get an “A” in this class if they just studied.” End of discussion. Looking back, the only thing different and the only thing new appear to be the process for evaluating teaching.
Well, what are the options to fix the system? Do away with the tenure system? No, the tenure system keeps a healthy balance among faculty members. Without the tenure system, there is concern that some academic units would become mini-dictatorships. Evaluations from other faculty are not the answer, as politics is considered these evaluations could create a popularity contest among faculty. How do we stop this nonsense? Perhaps the entire evaluation process should be outsourced. Pay-for-performance is important, but the current structure used to evaluate teaching at the university level needs improvement.

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