Grading teachers for quality

At the higher education level, three goals are required of faculty members: * Good teaching. * Sound research.

* Community service.

These were the criteria that underlaid the first-time-ever contest conducted by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education to name ''the professor of the year''

for 1981.

It was a bold move, touching all the sensitive issues surrounding the grading or assessing of teaching at the postsecondary level.

Mary Eleanor Clark, professor of biology at San Diego State University in California, won the honors.

What do students think of her? ''They love her.''

What do fellow researchers think of her? ''Outstanding.''

And what did the field of higher education think of the choice?

They were delighted that her research skills are ''of the highest order and world renowned.'' But there was praise, too, for her obvious delight in teaching; and from those who know about her pioneering efforts at team teaching - applause, applause.

And if ''publish or perish'' is a factor, this quiet-spoken lady has filled professional journals with her output for more than two decades.

The night before Dr. Clark delivered a lecture at the Smithsonian Institution we had dinner together and talked about the focus of this special section: grading teachers for quality.

She was quick to acknowledge that there really aren't any measuring sticks to tell a good professor from a poor one; that this must be done intuitively.

And then, showing that she can be both creative as well as precise as in her research on the role of small organic molecules in cell fluids, Dr. Clark asserted:

''Of course, we can learn a lot from intuition and certainly should trust it when studying teaching.''

Dr. Clark has not only authored research findings, but has written a widely used college text, ''Contemporary Biology.''

And she keeps her own feet to the fire by regularly teaching the introductory biology class which students at San Diego State may use to satisfy a science requirement.

She has to close the class at 250 and is not above using techniques familiar to dynamic and creative elementary-school teachers.

And she recognizes, too, that hearing and seeing aren't enough; that students have to actually feel things to understand them in some depth. This governs her use of countless experiments, even in her beginning-biology classes.

On the evening we talked, Dr. Clark was particularly enthused about a course she was teaching with 15 other professors - a course for 100 students exploring values.

Before the students come to the first lecture (or join their 25-person discussion groups), they must wrestle with these five questions:

* What, if any, is my religious belief?

* On what teachings and cultural assumptions is it based?

* What are my basic feelings about the relation between human beings and nature?

* What are my beliefs about the nature of human life and its purpose?

* Why should I feel concerned about all this?

Professors come from several disciplines, including the departments of religion and philosophy, and the final examination is made up of questions students submit after each section of the course.

We discussed, too, some of the bigger questions governing teaching at the college level. And again, Mary Clark would argue one must use ''sensible'' ways to measure the quality of teaching.

In answer to the question, ''Why teach?'' she said, ''Education increases our awareness and understanding of the world and permits us to expand our enjoyment of life, explore and test our values, and make wiser decisions.''

Would Dr. Clark agree these could be turned around to evaluate teaching? ''Yes.''

In answer to the question ''How to teach,'' she was sparse in her words, ''otherwise I would fill a book.''

She stated simply, ''Know what is inside your students' heads; including the information, feelings, and goals they bring to the classroom.

''Build on this, piece by piece, by tying new ideas onto prior information; by appealing to feelings already present; by demonstrating applicability to present goals.''

And then to solidify her explanation she summarized, ''The new ideas themselves will make the hoped-for changes.''

Next, in answer to the question, ''What to teach?'' she stated:

''When a teacher is in proper contact with students any subject can be taught profitably.The question becomes: If the world contains more knowledge than one person can ever hope to master, what knowledge should take precedence?''

Her answer is the quintessence of practicality: ''That knowledge which is most needed at the time.''

To locate Mary Clark, the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education followed a path that single institutions often use to evaluate their own faculty.

They looked for evidence of love of teaching, scholarly research, and contributions to professional publications, as well as community service.

In discussions with undergraduate academic deans, graduate deans, and college presidents, these qualities and activities are the most often cited.

Generally, particularly at four-year colleges and universities with or without 'rofessional schools and graduate departments, institutions only indulge in professional evaluation at times of promotion - including tenure.

There is not quite the same movement as is abroad in elementary and secondary schools to grade and evaluate all teachers continually. Or to test professors and instructors in higher education to determine what courses they should take to upgrade their teaching base.

At the same time that many in academia continue to argue for teaching specialists, more and more attention is being given to asking teachers to work in interdisciplinary situations and even to ask long-tenured professors to broaden their knowledge base.Hence, it is possible today to find a professor in one discipline auditing a course in another.Upgrading faculty is a subject most college authorities are delighted to discuss with a visiting reporter; but the tender subject of who should be removed from the classroom (fired for incompetence) is definitely not a subject ''for you press people.'' Those interviewed agree that it's certainly not easy to document why an instructor or even a full-fledged professor should be removed from classrooms and lecture halls - or from research laboratories. Thus, many institutions admit they keep on staff those they no longer feel are of the highest quality.I was told how the ranks are thinned at one graduate school in a large public university.The salaries of all in the department are posted prominently each fall, winter, and spring, and special note is made of those who do not receive anything more than a cost-of-living raise. Should someone ask the dean or a fellow professor why ''so and so'' did not get a raise, the response is along the line that ''he or she didn't measure up to the department's standards.''I asked how long it took to ''shame'' such a professor into early retirement. The answer was: ''In most cases, thank heavens, not long.''Perhaps the most radical step taken in the grading of teachers for quality is an outgrowth of student protests in the late 1960s. At first just a few campuses allowed students to set up their own rating programs; now I'm told it's a rare campus that has not ''institutionalized'' student grading of professors.How much credence is given to these subjective numbering or lettering systems fluctuates with the college administrator being interviewed.But on one point there was general agreement: The grades (and/or comments) go into each teacher's folder, and depending on the circumstances they can often be the ''make or break'' of a given teacher.Yet every academician agrees that students, generally, are without the perspective to do much meaningful evaluation or grading. On the other hand, several professors explained, ''We teachers take these seriously and work hard to measure up to good teaching standards.''Mary Clark, subjected to student evaluators, rates high with them but she, too, agreed that sometimes students are swayed by ''the thespians among us.''If ''fair'' is the byword for good teachers in elementary and secondary schools, ''care'' is the byword at the college level.As one student said, ''They can be stiff or loose; talk a lot or hardly talk at all; give tough exams or none at all; what separates the good from the bad are the ones who care.''Those who care about you as a student and those who care about what they teach.''Jacqueline Grennan Wexler, former president of Webster College in St. Louis and Hunter College in New York, takes an interesting pragmatic view to evaluation:''In business, if you fill a need you have a business. It is somewhat the same at the college level, and there the key is communication.''Her hand chopped the air to emphasize the next point, ''Communication is crucial for a teaching researcher as well as for a teaching-research institution.''She didn't even take time for a quick breath when asked to name ''the best college teacher she knew.''''Phil Morrison (Philip Morrison, physicist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology), is the quintessential professor. He can take a piece of knowledge and hook into it, getting students emotionally and intellectually engaged.''Then she took a breath and said with some wonder in her voice: ''He really respects his audience - that's the key to good teaching.''Dr. Wexler agrees with others interviewed that it's good, in her words, ''to listen to the kids. Then measure teachers by asking if the bad evidence says what the good evidence says.''Coming back to this topic after discussion of other points she concluded:''It would be antiintellectual not to pay attention to student evaluations.''Donna Shalala, the current president of Hunter College, agrees about student evaluations - they are all part of the picture, and often, she suggested, ''they can serve as an early-warning system.''And at Hunter, a part of the enormous City University of New York, every member of the faculty is reviewed by both peers and administrators. This is an open process, and results have to be cosigned and agreed to by both parties.Student evaluations at Hunter, as at many institutions contacted, are confidential; placed in a teacher's personnel folder and submitted only to the professor himself.There is another evaluation measure - used to grade relative strengths of the departments and professional schools - which is not openly discussed; at least not with members of the working press.And that is who gets prizes (How many Rhodes scholars have you had in the last decade?) as well as who gets the most students into the next step. What percent of the pre-law students, for example, were admitted to selective law schools? What percent of those who completed law school passed the bar exam?What percent of those in the nursing program passed the state nursing examination? (Hunter will talk about this statistic - it's one of the highest if not the highest, in the US.)What about outside grants from government and private philanthropists?Talk among scholars and administrators in higher education hovers over these comparative statistics whenever more than one dean is in a room. But do they want their schools or their departments or even individual members of the faculty graded on such ''outside'' measures? Generally not.And furthermore, nearly every college president will tell an inquiring journalist that - ''our faculty is absolutely the best there is, and we're upgrading them constantly.''Unlike the picture at the elementary and secondary level, there are no mandated tests for teachers in higher education, no certificates, and except for promotions and tenure in individual institutions , there is little formal evaluation.The solution to poor performance at this level is not necessarily to depend on further schooling for the teacher with the low grades, but for some way to be found to remove the person from the faculty and replace him or her with a ''better'' teacher/scholar/researcher/community asset.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.