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Evaluating Evaluations

Each semester, every student is asked to complete a teacher evaluation for each class he or she is in. The evaluations are collected by a student, and then returned to department heads, who in turn pass them on to Student Affairs.

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Students judge SAIC faculty

By Tara Plath, Staff writer

The age-old challenge of evaluating teachers has been recently reignited through President Obama’s Race to the Top program, in which teachers are being thoroughly and aggressively analyzed for their effectiveness in the classroom. While the program is aimed at primary and secondary education, these efforts mirror the scrutiny under which teachers are held at the college level, like at SAIC.

Thanks to Race to the Top, schools across the country have been busy changing their evaluation methods. SAIC has different ways of evaluating teachers, including teacher evaluations written by students, but the school has also jumped on the bandwagon, recently embarking upon a two year study to re-evaluate the evaluation process.

Each semester, every student is asked to complete a teacher evaluation for each class he or she is in. The evaluations are collected by a student, and then returned to department heads, who in turn pass them on to Student Affairs. As far as many students are concerned, the evaluations mark the end of the semester and the beginning of their long-awaited vacation.

They have a much bigger role than that, however. Every evaluation for the roughly 1,200 courses listed each semester is immediately scanned onto an online database. Once grades for that semester have been submitted, teachers, department chairs, and administrative directors can access the evaluations online.

The paper files stay in Student Affairs for one year before they are archived, and they can be consulted by teachers and students researching future classes. Caroline West, Assistant Director of Student Affairs, is generally happy with the number of students who read them. “It would be great if more [students] did read them. A lot of students don’t know that they can,” says West.

When asked if she found teacher evaluations helpful, SAIC alumna Becka Cooling-Mallard replied, “I do. I take them seriously. But you also take them with a grain of salt. You realize some people use poor judgment and just don’t care. The ones that are really thorough can usually be trusted.”

The evaluations do a lot more than just inform students, however. They become a vital part in the process of deciding the status of part-time and full-time faculty. A tenure-track faculty member is usually reviewed in his or her second, fourth, and sixth year of teaching. “The evaluations are deeply considered by the department, the elected division chairs, and the 11 elected members of the Faculty Contract and Tenure Review Committee,” says Shanna Linn, Director of Academic Administration. Each party then condenses the dozens, even hundreds, of evaluations in a letter written to the Dean of Faculty.

The process is not perfect, however. “I’ve had teachers not even give [evaluations] to us. Like tenured faculty. The class really was bad and had some major issues,” says Cooling-Mallard.

Not everybody believes that teacher evaluations written by students should hold so much weight in the tenure review process. As author, professor, and literary theorist Stanley Fish wrote in his column in the New York Times, “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.” Fish argues that often a student cannot measure the effectiveness of a class so immediately, and that an evaluation written at the end of a semester can be premature in its judgment of a class’ worth. These evaluations can “also lead to the abandoning or blighting of a career,” writes Fish.

Even worse, an extreme reliance on teacher evaluations can lead to a mentality whereby the professors desperately try to cater to students’ desires in order to get a good “grade,” so to speak. In Texas, a new plan has been launched whereby “college and university teachers contract with their customers — that is, students — to be rewarded by as much as $10,000 depending on whether they meet the contract’s terms [i.e., depending on how well they perform on teacher evaluations]. The idea is to hold ‘tenured professors more accountable,’” Fish wrote.

Full-time faculty Romi Crawford agrees with Fish that evaluations can be problematic. She describes the evaluations as having a chaotic element. “You fill them out fifteen minutes before the end of a sixteen week semester. Often you are tired, sick, and sometimes cold. There is not enough time. We’re in teaching marathons.”

On the other hand, while Crawford says she often takes a pragmatic approach at reading constructive criticism and applying it to her next course, she takes just as much from students’ evaluations of themselves. “What strikes me is that moment where students assess themselves. It seems to be the most honest point in the evaluation. Many students have the desire and aspiration to have performed differently and that’s really interesting. That’s something I can really use and say, ‘Jeez my students are really tired.’ That’s the information I’m not as privy to as I should be, and it informs my teaching as much as the pragmatic stuff,” says Crawford.

Crawford has sat on several hiring and promotion committees, in which she reads teacher evaluations of her colleagues. She was often struck by students’ complaints of something like a teacher’s heavy accent. In terms of students’ harsh reactions to things such as accents, teaching styles, or personalities, Crawford says, “It’s a life model. I can’t see that as a bad thing for our students. We want you all to take on the challenge. It’s the humanity of it all. We aren’t teaching machines.”

Full-time philosophy faculty Raja Halwani does take them seriously. “I read my teaching evaluations all the time and I often respond to the suggestions in them if I find them to be fair. I think that the evaluations are good as a tool to evaluate teachers, but they should never be used on their own.” Halwani suggests that the evaluations be “a bit more specific, and perhaps different sets of evaluations should be devised for different types of classes.”

SAIC is also a little different from other schools because of the pass-fail system, where self-motivation and interest is key to succeeding and getting the most out of a class, as opposed to obtaining an “A.” Ideally, this situation would foster an environment where students were truly invested in learning and would judge their teachers accordingly — as opposed to based on the harshness of their grading policies or their showmanship.

Linn emphasizes the importance SAIC places on its own student’s evaluations. “The student evaluations are a vital form of feedback and response for the school administration — and while the volume can be overwhelming to the extent that not every evaluation is read every semester, the majority of them are reviewed, considered, and integrated into decisions.”

See Tara Plath’s companion piece, “SAIC’s Best Kept Secret”

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