There has been a little discussion on an informal email list at my university about the Op-Ed by Bill Gates in the New York Times that argues against public rankings of teachers. It’s a position that in some ways constrains the Gates Foundation’s seeming interest in quantifying teaching performance. It led to questions we have tried to face about deciding merit in teaching, and encouraging teaching excellence at our own institution. I obviously won’t post the stream, but here’s my response to some of the discussion:
The problem with ranking is that it suggests that excellence in teaching is a uni-dimensional construct, which I think even a cursory “gut-check” says is dead wrong. When I think back to my greatest teachers, they have little in common. One was cold, condescending, and frankly not a very nice human, but he was exacting in asking us to clearly express ourselves, and his approach led to a room full of students who could clearly state an argument, lead a discussion, and understand the effects of style on philosophical argument. Another was a little scattered, but brought us into his home and family, was passionate about the field, and taught us how important it was to care about our research subjects. Another had a bit of the trickster in him, and would challenge our assumptions by setting absurd situations. And I could name another half-dozen who were excellent teachers–but one of the things that made them excellent was the unique way in which they approached the process of learning.
And frankly, if you asked a number of my undergraduatepeers who the “best” teachers in our program were, there would certainly be some overlap, but it would be far from perfect. An essential question is “best for whom”? And just as our students are each unique, and we should approach them as whole people (the unfortunate fact is that we *do* rank them by grading them, but that doesn’t make the process right), we should approach faculty as… perhaps a box of chocolate. The diversity of backgrounds, styles, and approaches to teaching and learning are a strength, not a weakness. We shouldn’t all be striving to fit to the golden standard of the best among us.
Now, this is not an argument for absolute relativism: there are better and worse ways of fostering student learning. It is also not an argument against quantification or assessment: I think an essential tool for improving our teaching is operationalizing some of the abstruse concepts of “good teaching” to something measurable, and using qualitative AND quantitative assessments to help us develop as a group. But the problem with ranking faculty is that there isn’t a single scale for teaching effectiveness, nor even the three (or four, if you count “hotness”) that RateYourProfessor suggest, but dozens of different scales that we might be ranked on. And while some of us may be near the top of many of those scales, I doubt any of us are at the top of all of them.