Iowa Debates Rating of College Professors on Student Evaluations


The Iowa Senate is considering a bill that would rate professors’ performance based solely upon student evaluations. Anya Kamenetz of NPR reports that if the bill is passed it would mean that low-rated professors would automatically be fired with no tenure and no appeals.

State Sen. Mark Chelgren (R-Ottumwa), the bill’s author, says that students are taking on overwhelming student debt, but many are not getting their money’s worth. Professors, continues Chelgren, need to treat their students as their customers. Though the bill has little chance of passing, the bigger issue is how professors should be measured in regard to their performance.

Kamenetz references an article she wrote last year about Philip Stark, chairman of the statistics department at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-author of “An Evaluation of Course Evaluations.” His major assumption is that the comment-card approach to measuring professors’ performance may not be the best way to go.

He says that the response rate for these questionnaires is sometimes less than half the students in the class. The sampling bias relies on very happy or very unhappy students, who are often more motivated to fill out evaluations.

Stark says that some professors are great with high performers and others are good with low performers, raising questions about how there can be a fair measure of these two professors when the entire class is doing the “grading.”

The interaction between professors and students also varies across disciplines and the type of class. The same survey is often given to students whether the class they are taking is a seminar, studio, lab, or large lecture course.

Michele Pellizzari, an economics professor at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, says that a measure of quality might be found based on how well a student does in a subsequent course. If a student had Prof. Smith for Microeconomics I, what grade did he make the next year in Microeconomics II? However, the better professors whose students made high grades in later classes, ranked lower in student evaluations.

Stark and Pellizzari agree that student rating systems could be used to gather information on facts like whether a professor comes to class on time or skips classes. But along with that Stark suggests peer evaluation, with award-winning teachers observing classes and gathering information about those he has observed.

The bill calls for the bottom five professors above the minimum threshold on the scoring scale to be shamed by having their names and scores published, and after that the student body may vote as to whether any of the five should be retained as employees of the college or university.

The Iowa bill comes after similar legislation in North Carolina which mandates that professors in the North Carolina public university system teach four courses each semester. The idea is that if professors are asked to teach twice the number of classes as they currently teach, their teaching will improve.

In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker is proposing that professors in his state should be “teaching more classes and doing more work.” At the same time, he proposes to cut the University of Wisconsin system budget by $300 million over the next two years.

04 30, 2015