Teacher quality is an important factor in student success in the classroom in both public and higher education. The proposal to use student evaluations as part of an effort to reform Texas higher education recognizes this fact and seeks to reward the best educators. In the past couple of days, criticism from outside the state has appeared – criticism which ignores several key parts of the proposal.

– The program is voluntary. Faculty members are not required to participate. The plan rewards those teachers based upon evaluations and the number of students taught. This encourages faculty to teach as many students as possible.

– Existing evaluation forms submitted at the end of the year are used to rate the teachers. These evaluations are typically conducted before final grades are awarded. Multiple studies have shown that students’ ratings are not biased by their likely grades, thus limiting teachers’ incentives to award higher grades in an effort to secure a higher evaluation and thus, a bonus. Additionally, all faculty members are encouraged to agree to limit high grades and grade inflation when first joining the program.

– Studies show that student evaluations are effective measures of teacher performance, especially when the goals and expectations for a course are clearly laid out.

– These bonuses would be available to all teachers, not just tenured professors. As we showed in a 2009 article, 70% of courses taught in public universities are taught by non-tenure-track faculty, including graduate teaching assistants. The average tenured professor teaches fewer than three courses per year. Non-tenured faculty normally earn far less than tenured faculty, often as little as $10 per hour. Those teachers who do the most and best work of educating our youth should be rewarded for such.

The criticisms of student evaluations also ignore the fact that these are only one part of a much larger reform plan that encourages students, parents, and taxpayers to become more involved in improving higher education at public universities.

The Foundation has no problem with sound academic research; after all, we are researchers ourselves. But as important as academic research is, it is secondary to the primary goal of educating students. These are public universities funded by public tax dollars established to educate our citizens.

So while there may be value to “highly qualified scholars working on problems that may have no practical payoff except the unquantifiable payoff of advancing our understanding of something in philosophy or nature that has long been a mystery,” the public should rightly expect accountability from these institutions for the tax dollars being spent. And unlike the students who the critics say “may not realize [the value of a course] for decades, the public is pretty savvy at understanding immediately the value it is getting in return for its money.

– Bill Peacock