Grading Teachers

Two weeks ago, Stanley Fish wrote a column in the NY Times recalling his classical high school education.  Fish expressed his deep gratitude for the education he received explaining that,

although I have degrees from two Ivy league schools and have taught at U.C. Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Columbia and Duke, Classical High School (in Providence, RI) is the best and most demanding educational institution I have ever been associated with.

That is remarkably high, and seemingly well-deserved, praise.  Fish’s column, which went on to review three recent books advocating a reconsideration of classical education and the humanities, apparently provoked a strong response from readers.  This Monday, Fish began his column by recounting the many responses he received which described an experience along these lines,

“I had a high school (or a college) experience like yours,” the poster typically said, “and I hated it and complained all the time about the homework, the demands and the discipline; but now I am so pleased that I stayed the course and acquired skills that have served me well throughout my entire life.”

I imagine this is not a terribly unusual situation.  We have all had the experience of coming to appreciate something in retrospect which for one reason or another, often immaturity, we were unable to appreciate at the time.  But, Fish goes on to reflect on the implications of this pattern for the near ubiquitous practice of student course surveys.

Now suppose those who wrote in to me had been asked when they were young if they were satisfied with the instruction they were receiving? Were they getting their money’s worth? Would they recommend the renewal of their teachers’ contracts? I suspect the answers would have been “no,” “no” and “no,” and if their answers had been taken seriously and the curriculum they felt oppressed by had been altered accordingly, they would not have had the rich intellectual lives they now happily report, or acquired some of the skills that have stood them in good stead all these years.

This is why Fish suggests that, “Deferred judgment” or “judgment in the fullness of time” seems to be appropriate to the evaluation of teaching.”  And this is also why Fish concludes,

… student evaluations (against which I have inveighed since I first saw them in the ’60s) are all wrong as a way of assessing teaching performance: they measure present satisfaction in relation to a set of expectations that may have little to do with the deep efficacy of learning. Students tend to like everything neatly laid out; they want to know exactly where they are; they don’t welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers.

But sometimes (although not always) effective teaching involves the deliberate inducing of confusion, the withholding of clarity, the refusal to provide answers; sometimes a class or an entire semester is spent being taken down various garden paths leading to dead ends that require inquiry to begin all over again, with the same discombobulating result; sometimes your expectations have been systematically disappointed. And sometimes that disappointment, while extremely annoying at the moment, is the sign that you’ve just been the beneficiary of a great course, although you may not realize it for decades.

Needless to say, that kind of teaching is unlikely to receive high marks on a questionnaire that rewards the linear delivery of information and penalizes a pedagogy that probes, discomforts and fails to provide closure.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a teacher and I have been the subject of course surveys of the sort Fish describes, or better, decries.  For the record, I have done quite well on such surveys, so this is not a rant born of bitterness.  However, I find it hard to argue with the logic of Fish’s argument.  The rest of his column goes on to target a proposed education reform plan being advanced in Texas which relies on the student-as-customer model which is closely connected with the ethos of the student evaluation form.

Education in this country, at the secondary and post-secondary level, is unfortunately in a state of disrepair.  Countless books and articles have been written on the subject and some form revitalization is needed.  This much is true.  It is also true that often the problems stem from teachers and professors who are more interested in career advancement and security than they are in advancing the knowledge of their students.  Something needs to be done about this.  However, we should be careful to avoid a cure that is worse than the disease, and the further mechanization, commercialization,  and bureaucratization of education seems to be just such a deadly cure.

In his excellent piece, “The Computerized Academy,” from the Summer 2005 issue of The New Atlantis, Matthew Crawford offered these apropos reflections,

Ideally, a teacher’s judgment about what is good for you is not colored by what is immediately pleasant for you. But increasingly, what is good for the teacher (professionally) is determined by what is immediately pleasant for the student. The career incentives for professors can be managed to some extent by judicious deans and department chairs, for example, by norming a professor’s teaching evaluations against his or her grade distribution and the demands of the course, so that tough grading and a choice of difficult material, even if penalized by students in their evaluations, will not be allowed to threaten a professor’s tenure prospects. Absent such a contrarian, clear-eyed defense of excellence by those in charge, all the pressures on a professor tend toward dumbing things down: giving fewer assignments (less work for him), grading generously (less whining and pleading from students), and choosing subjects that are not too remote from the students’ experience (a sure path to popularity). Since that prior experience is constituted to a large degree by mass forces, there is a certain uniformity of perspective and taste that begins to assert itself in the curriculum.

Accountability that will not endanger the pursuit of excellence and reward conformity is the goal.  Figuring out the mechanism that will get us there is the task at hand. The indiscriminate expansion of choice and the introduction of market pressures into the classroom does not seem to be the right mechanism for the task.  At the very least, it is fraught with serious and troubling side effects.

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