A few days ago I reviewed the book titled "Sway: The Irresistable Pull of Irrational Behavior," which is an eloquent essay with enlightening examples of situations and characteristics that cause us to make irrational decisions. Beginning on page 144, the authors (Brafman and Brafman) illustrate how our "pleasure center" can "hijack the altruism center." The authors use the example of Community High in Ann Arbor, MI, a school "rich with opportunities for intellectual and creative freedom." In the faculty's search to gain more independence from state regulations, they started a pilot program designed to improve class attendance and student performance. So, on a random day during the last week of school, teachers whose classes had at least an 80% attendance level would be rewarded with a salary bonus that "equaled roughly 12 percent of their annual salary."
Now, the moral to the story kicks in. Did the program work? Actually, the attendance rate remained constant although the course completion rate rose. But, and here's the real result: The average GPA dropped from 2.71 to 2.18. What happened? Researchers found (p. 146) that the teachers shifted their focus to enticing students to come to class so they could get the salary reward. The authors state that "Not only does our response to a monetary reward resemble our response to a drug like cocaine, but so does our drive to attain the reward."
While reading this discussion, my long-standing aversion to the application and evalution of teacher course evaluations kicked in. Although other factors are brought into consideration, I have seen the course evaluation results carry enormous weight in salary and rank considerations. I have also seen other faculty deliberately try all kinds of artificial schemes to hike their course evaluations. I watched some teachers dole out all A's and B's, while some of us continued to remember the remaining letters of the grading alphabet: C's, D's, and F's. Some teachers brought treats like Krispy Kremes on course evaluation day. Some allowed students, in defiance of University policy, to skip the final exam. Some were eminently willing to raise grades when students whined about them even though they probably had already received a grade higher than they deserved.
Some students are objective in their evaluation of teachers and courses. Some students become so pathologically angry that they write vicious diatribes on the course evaluation and then send a letter to the dean. I found that at least 3 or 4% of my class members in large classes of 400 or more would write absolutely despicable comments on the course evaluation. Of course, the evaluation is designed to protect the student's anonymity so that grades are not affected. Moreover, teachers are not (supposedly) allowed to see the course evaluation results until the grades are submitted to the University.
Rank, salary, and tenure considerations are life-and-death matters for individual faculty members and for the University at large. After spending any where from eight to ten or more years preparing to teach college, one would think that any one who survives that unforgiving gauntlet of torture in acquiring a Ph.D. would be ready to teach. Some, sadly, are not. Unless a new Ph.D. has experience as a lecturing Teaching Assistant with critical evaluations of their performance, new Ph.D. hires are mostly "pot luck" when turning them loose in the classroom. Some should never have sought a teaching career. However, publishing high-quality research in refereed journals has saved many a mediocre or below-average teacher, since the University's research and scholarly reputation may be deemed more critical to survival and the awarding of grants and distinction than teaching awards. But mediocre course evaluations and the absence of published refereed research combined are often the kiss of death for an academic career. The sometimes uncivil war between teaching and research has continued as long as the debate over whether Adam or Eve was at fault.
Looking back over my eight-plus years of college, we did not have the now-ubiquitous course evaluation in those days. I doubt some of my very best and most valuable teachers would have scored tremendously high in communication and organization skills. What they lacked in these departments, they excelled in brilliant and creative thought and in rigor of analysis and presentation. A popular teacher may very well also be an outstanding teacher with high scores on course evaluations and, indeed, in many cases such teachers rise to the top of the academic echelons. And students, however perverse they may appear at times, are not stupid. They can see quickly through false fronts and marginal abilities. But I have also seen a few teachers become absolutely demoralized and demolished by the course evaluation when, in my own estimation, they were doing a decent job in a very tough and unpopular subject. The quest for money and academic survival may, indeed, sway academic behavior in the ways discussed by the authors of "Sway." Moreover, the entire battle and issue of "teaching to the exam" in the No Child Left Behind presents infinite possibilities for analyzing distortions of the results of a reward system and its effects on learning and teaching performance.