Should students get to decide if a professor is fired?

Iowa bill unlikely to pass would make it so

An Iowa bill would place students entirely in charge of public university professors' employment, but some experts warn pupils should have less—not more—influence over their instructors' evaluations.

Under the terms of the bill, which was introduced by state Sen. Mark Chelgren (R) in January:

  • The measure would base professors' job security on student evaluations only.

  • Professors who do not earn scores above a certain threshold would be fired automatically.

  • Then, the names of five professors with the lowest scores above that bar would be published online and students would vote on who should remain employed.

  • The professor with the fewest votes would lose their job—regardless of tenure status.

When students think teachers are women, do they give them lower marks?

"Professors need to understand that their customers are those students," says Chelgren, who says that he introduced the bill to add accountability to the system.

"There should be some mechanism for the students to be able to say, 'This professor isn't worth the money,'" he says, adding, "I'd like to make sure we bring passion back to education."

But many within the industry disagree with that statement.

"The reliance on teaching evaluations has always bothered me," says Philip Stack, chairperson of University of California (UC) Berkley's statistics department and co-author of a recent paper on the subject.

In some classes, fewer than half of the students fill out the forms and either very happy or very unhappy ones are more likely to respond.  Plus, he says, there is the issue of averaging results. One professor with extremely polarized reviews would get the same "satisfactory" score as someone who received all mid-level results.

Additionally, the same survey is generally used for all types of classes across class levels, departments, and programs.

"I think that there's general agreement that student evaluations of teaching don't mean what they claim to mean," Stack says.

They may even encourage bad teaching, according to research from Michele Pellizzari, an economics professor at the University of Geneva.

He compared students' professor evaluations with how each professor's students did in future courses. The result: Low rated professors' students did the best in subsequent classes. The one exception however, is that highly skilled students (as determined by a college entry cognitive test) award high marks to professors who push them.

"If you make your students do well in their academic career, you get worse evaluations," he says.

Evaluation alternatives

Instead of making student opinions even more influential, Stark and Pellizzari recommend limiting their power to factual points such as cancelled classes or professors' tardiness.

In the statistics department at UC-Berkley, Stark has implemented new evaluation methods such as peer reviews of class materials and teaching methods.

"That seems like a much more holistic appraisal than simply asking students what they think," he says (Kamenetz, NPR, 4/26; Will, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4/23).

The takeaway: An Iowa state bill proposal would base professors' continued employment entirely on student evaluations—but some researchers argue students' reviews should have less, not more influence than they do now.

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