Should students be allowed to give good teachers a bonus?

by AllAmericanBreakfast2 min read2nd Nov 202028 comments

42

EducationWorld Optimization
Frontpage

Alice is a STEM student taking general chemistry, linear algebra, and intro to computer programming. At the end of her term, the school emails her an online form with a link to her Student-Allocated Bonus.

For taking three classes, Alice gets 3 points. She can divide them up however she wants between her teachers from this quarter. Her favorite teacher was Prof. Bruin, her math teacher. Her least favorite teacher was Prof. Cameron, her computer programming teacher. Prof. Dorry, her chemistry teacher, was all right. She gives Prof. Bruin 2 points, Prof. Dorry 1 point, and Prof. Cameron 0 points.

Jack is her classmate, but he forgets to fill out the SAB form. The system divides his points equally, 1 per teacher.

Once the due date for submission has passed, the system totals up the points that students have allocated to each teacher. Each teacher gets $5 per point. It's a modest but not insignificant bonus. Prof. Bruin's 30 students award him 50 points, so he earns $250 extra. At the local college, teachers make about $3,000 per class, so that's an 8% bump in his earnings.

People were worried at first that this was basically the same thing as students bribing their teacher. What if Jack promises his math teacher that he'll give him all his points on the SAB in exchange for "going easy on his grading?"

The beauty of the anonymized points system is that it makes this impossible to verify. Which student gave which points to what teacher is anonymous. Since points can only be given in integers, students can't do any shenanigans like giving their teacher some weird decimal point number of points (2.6893 points) so that their teacher will see the decimal number and know who the money was from. And the SAB is assigned after all grades are due at the end of the quarter.

The SAB is a modest portion of the teacher's total salary. It's not a club that students can hold over a teacher's head. $5 is not a meaningful bribe. It's just one small but non-zero part of the incentive structure.

But it has some very attractive advantages.

Students are the consumers of the product schools are selling. They have at the very least an important role in evaluating its quality. Currently, they can only express their opinion before trying out a teacher's offering, by choosing whether or not to pay tuition for the class. Wouldn't it be better if at least some small fraction of their money was allocated after the class, when they have an informed opinion?

EDIT: Following discussion in the comments, I want to revise this. Students are indeed the consumers of the teaching and equipment that schools are selling, and they are the producers of the credentials/learning employers are consuming. We can treat this as a sector of the economy that takes students and educational services as inputs, and outputs professionals to a variety of other sectors.

Students are also transient. If their only option for evaluating teachers is to grade them or give written feedback at the end of the quarter, it's on an administrator to decide whether and how to discipline teachers who get bad reviews and reward those who get good ones. They don't know exactly what the students meant in their feedback forms. Egos and relationships are on the line. Inertia sets in. This way, there's a little bit of a carrot that administrators can offer to good teachers, without having to take responsibility for deciding who the good teachers are.

Finally, this system gives students a small but meaningful sense of responsibility for their school. When they fill out the SAB, they're not going to alter their own outcomes. They already took the class. What they're doing is helping steer the school in a better direction for the next class of students. This promotes a sense of stewardship.

Teachers might be afraid that they're being given a pay cut that they have to "placate students" to get back. This fear could be alleviated by adding a $5 fee per class. Present teacher pay is unchanged. The SAB is truly a bonus - a pure increase in pay - for teachers who earn it.

I'd appreciate any feedback on ways this system could fail, and also ideas on the practical challenges administrators might face in implementing it. If similar systems already exist, please let me know examples.

42

28 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:12 AM
New Comment

This study from the United States Air Force Academy found that there is a trade-off between performance on the immediate test and deep understanding of the material. Student evaluation of teacher performance is correlated to how well they perform on the immediate test more than it is correlated to how well they developed a deep understanding of the material. In this way, student evaluation of a teacher can be inversely correlated to the quality of the education they receive.

Regardless of how these effects may operate, our results show that student evaluations reward professors who increase achievement in the contemporaneous course being taught, not those who increase deep learning. Using our various measures of teacher quality to rank-order teachers leads to profoundly different results. Since many U.S. colleges and universities use student evaluations as a measurement of teaching quality for academic promotion and tenure decisions, this finding draws into question the value and accuracy of this practice.

I think there's a critical distinction to draw here. There are three possibilities that are being conflated in your comment.

  1. Student evaluations correlate more strongly with test performance, and only weakly with deep understanding. ("Student evaluation of teacher performance is correlated to how well they perform on the immediate test more than it is correlated to how well they developed a deep understanding of the material.")
  2. Student evaluations correlate with test performance, and are not correlated with deep understanding. ("student evaluations reward professors who increase achievement in the contemporaneous course being taught, not those who increase deep learning.")
  3. Student evaluations correlate with test performance, and are inversely correlated with deep understanding - i.e. giving student evaluations coincides with more shallow understanding. ("In this way, student evaluation of a teacher can be inversely correlated to the quality of the education they receive.")

Only if (3) is true does correlation suggest that student evaluations may be harmful to learning.

If (2) is true, student evaluations seem less attractive, but maybe restructuring them would be an experiment worth trying.

If (1) is true, then there's a stronger case for student evaluations and seeing if we can get a better correlation with learning out of them.

Students are the consumers of the product


This is only partly true. Employers and others also have skin in the game. There has been some research suggesting that grade inflation, which reduces the information content of grades, is in part due to the role that student assessment play in academic career prospects. Students rate soft markers more highly.

This is an example of using a metric (for teacher quality) that is imperfect, which then results in distortions.

  1. this advantages teachers with larger classes.
  2. as proposed, this is a relative ranking. With all the loss of team spirit that implies
  3. it's a very weak signal, especially on the "above average" side.

Where does the money come from? I presume this (plus some administrative overhead cost) gets tacked onto tuition, I think it probably won't be popular with students.  Also, from the college profs I know, the current level of feedback and student-ratings is ALREADY fairly disruptive to the ability to hold high standards in curriculum, and this would seem to make it a lot worse.

Students are the consumers of the product schools are selling.

This is incorrect.  Future employers are the primary consumers of both the credentials and the knowledge/abilities imparted to the students.  Taxpayers and students (in rather differing ratio based on type of college) are the main purchasers.  

This would be an interesting idea if combined with income-share agreements (where a student gives a % of future income rather than (or in addition to a lower) fixed price for school).  Allow the students to allocate some amount of their loan repayment or income-withholding, long after graduation, to teachers or departments they feel were most beneficial to them.  

Where does the money come from?

As I mentioned, I envisioned a very small fee - perhaps $5/class. It's hard to imagine students thinking twice about this. I wanted to aim for around 5% of the income a typical community college teacher might make per class.

Given that this is an additional bonus rather than a threat of disciplinary action, it seems hard for teachers to argue that it would be disruptive. What's disruptive about getting $150 or so that you otherwise wouldn't have gotten?

Future employers are the primary consumers of both the credentials and the knowledge/abilities imparted to the students.  Taxpayers and students (in rather differing ratio based on type of college) are the main purchasers.

That's a nifty distinction, but I'd word it differently.

Students are the producers of trained employees. They consume educational services and capital (lab space and equipment, for example) in order to transform themselves into a professional. That transformation is the production of a professional out of the "raw material" of a student. The employer then consumes their professional services.

A close analogy is that a steel refinery (i.e. the student) is a primary consumer of ore (i.e. education), even though the steel itself still needs to be manufactured into a useful product (i.e. workplace productivity). Unless you'd consider people who buy cars the "primary consumers" of iron ore, I don't think it makes sense to consider businesses the "primary consumers" of educational services.

However, I think the issue you're getting at is important. For an efficient economy, you'd want producers to have a responsibility to create a product that consumers want to buy. We'd want consumers to have a loud, clear voice in guiding producers to make a useful product. Although we do have decent incentives for students - you can't get rid of student loan debt by declaring bankruptcy, for example - they still seem to make a lot of bad decisions. We have a habit of bequeathing 18 year olds with a "small loan" of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a lot of the time they pour it into a product that nobody wants to buy.

This would be an interesting idea if combined with income-share agreements

These do exist. My vague memory from hearing about them on a podcast a couple years ago is that they're a bad choice if you're able to attract loans to fund your education, for reasons that I don't understand. It seems like a great idea to me in theory.

In practice, it seems like you have to do a lot of enforcement, and it might be more complicated for the student to figure out as well. There's a lot of capital sloshing around, so I wouldn't expect it to be too hard for a strong student who wants to pursue a lucrative career to have much trouble funding their education.

I also like your idea of students being able to allocate money to a department, rather than to a specific teacher.

As I mentioned, I envisioned a very small fee - perhaps $5/class. It's hard to imagine students thinking twice about this. 

Oh, in that case, maybe it'd be simpler if students just started tipping their professors.  Solve for the equilibrium.

Simpler, but then a "tip" could appear to be a bribe. This way, students aren't credibly able to promise a payment in exchange for a grade.

My second-favorite teacher in undergrad was relatively unpopular because he taught very difficult classes, at least some of which were required to graduate.

Teachers might be afraid that they're being given a pay cut that they have to "placate students" to get back. This fear could be alleviated by adding a $5 fee per class. Present teacher pay is unchanged. The SAB is truly a bonus - a pure increase in pay - for teachers who earn it.

I don't think this is how market wages work. If it is known that the average teacher gets a $100 bonus, the school will offer $100 less in base pay than it would otherwise.

Maybe not right now, when the change is introduced. But in the following years, the wages will raise slower than they would otherwise, until the balance is achieved.

This seems compelling, but I'm not sure it's right. If the SAB actually does cause a significant improvement in teaching quality for a negligible cost, then students should be attracted to schools that implement it. That school can increase its tuition. As improved teaching is causing that increased demand, teachers can be expected to have improved negotiating power over their wages in the future.

If this is true, then why don't teachers step up their game now? My theory is that they're suffering from a free-rider problem. My premises are:

  1. Teacher salaries are primarily determined by overall student demand for the school. Student demand for the school is determined by the median teaching quality at the school.
  2. High performance is costly to the teacher - it takes more time, energy, or talent than mediocre teaching.

With these premises in mind, then we might expect that some individual teachers would tend to slack off.

By introducing an immediate incentive to up their game, it changes the incentive structure. Teachers now have a tangible reason not to slack off. So presuming that a Student-Allocated Bonus actually incentivizes teachers to teach well, I think it would have the effect of increasing their salaries in the long run.

This doesn't work as well if students are rewarding teachers for being soft graders and teaching easy classes. I think this is the stronger critique of the Student-Allocated Bonus: it may not incentivize the desired behavior from teachers.

Student demand for the school is determined by the median teaching quality at the school.

That's just one of many things. For example, in USA many students seem to care about sport.

Another important thing is classmates. It is a wise investment to make the important people of the future your former classmates. And this is a game of self-fulfilling prophecies, with some schools acting as Schelling points.

If everyone believes the best students go to X, you also apply for X, and if many people follow this logic and the school chooses the best among those who applied, then it becomes true, and you might get a certificate of having studied at the school for the best. This mechanism is almost independent on quality of teaching. One might assume that the best students would prefer having the best teachers, ceteris paribus, but given the choice between having a diploma from school A known for having great teachers and mediocre students, or school B known for having mediocre teachers but best students, it is not obvious you should choose A. -- Plus, there is a lot of halo effect; people will automatically assume that a high-status school has better teachers; you can change the impression by advertising, etc.

I should have said "partially determined." I'm sure we can agree that perceived teaching quality is an important factor in why students choose one school over another.

Yes. I just think that the perception of teaching quality is... prone to all kinds of biases. Unless you actually studied at both schools, so you can compare both using your own experience.

So the money the school could spend on hiring better teachers might be better spent on advertising. I am not suggesting hiring bad teachers, rather the same ones as your competitors, and if you have extra money left, spend it elsewhere.

Currently, they can only express their opinion before trying out a teacher's offering

Most universitites have already systems where students evaluate their teachers at the end of the year and the scores do figure into administrative decisions of the university. 

This effect is already strong enough to get undesireable effects like grade inflation that happens when teachers focus on being liked by students.

I’m sure it’s different from place to place, but at my school, teachers who’ve taught for a while only get evaluated once every 5 years or something like that.

Student evals are directly interpreted and acted on by the teacher’s colleagues. So I’d be more concerned about student evaluations resulting from a teacher needing to be liked by the other teachers in their department. And of course, if the teacher is tenured, then that softens the blow of a bad evaluation.

Student evals are only one explanation for grade inflation. What if teachers just enjoy being liked by their students, and seek to avoid the hassle of student complaints? Speaking as a long time teacher, I can tell you that those factors are overwhelmingly important in determining my experience from day to day.

In 2007 I wrote an article for Inside Higher Ed advocating that "institutions should empower graduating seniors to reward teaching excellence. Colleges should do this by giving each graduating senior $1,000 to distribute among their faculty. Colleges should have graduates use a computer program to distribute their allocations anonymously."

https://insidehighered.com/views/2007/09/07/beyond-merit-pay-and-student-evaluations

Did you get any feedback on your article after it was published? Have you seen others writing or adopting similar proposals?

Not that I recall. 

Excellent objections, commenters. It sounds like the overall reaction is "this incentivizes grade inflation, likeability, packed classes, and easiness - not quality teaching." I like waveman's point that graduate schools, employers, governments, and others have skin in the game as well.

And of course, the changes I'd like to see aren't going to be achieved by handing out petty cash here and there.

In my local community college, the main things I miss are well-designed curriculums and good teachers. It's just too spotty. Some teachers are angels, and some are just stinkers. Some curriculums are delightful, and others have gigantic flaws that make a class into 12 weeks of misery.

As a student, becoming intimately familiar with each and every flaw, it's easy to get the sense that "if this is how bad it is, this teacher/department must just not care about the experience of their students. They're getting paid the same whether or not they offer a quality class. Students aren't going to just quit if they get hit with a nasty teacher offering a disorganized class - they've already paid, they'd get a W or an F on their transcript, and even if not, where would they go?"

But I need to remember that even though this is kind of true, and even though this is a plausible explanation for why there are flaws in a class, there are other explanations that are more sympathetic:

  1. Some of the teachers may not be the best in the world, but they're still offering an education with high altruistic and earning potential attached to it at an amazingly low price relative to the long-term benefit. It's still a pretty good deal, even with all the stress and frustration.
  2. The teachers might have the same frustrations with the school bureaucracy, the curriculum vendors, shitty, dishonest, manipulative students, and their own demanding and stressful lives. They might actually be working hard to offer the best class they can - and it might just be a hard problem to solve.
  3. The systemic problems are extremely difficult and don't have any lovely solutions. Goodhart's Law isn't just a cute explanation for individual problems. It's the institutional equivalent of gravity. It's what drags everything down, slows us down, makes things collapse. Oh, we can try to evaluate and incentivize. We can test, we can evaluate, we can complain. But the value of it all is dubious.

So rather than anguishing over the shortcomings, the right response is to appreciate that we're able to have even so much. For a mere $12,000 or so, I've been able to go from a music teacher scraping by to a top student eagerly sought by bioinformatics grad programs that will offer the chance to more than triple my annual salary and do work that I'm very passionate about. That's the American story right there. It's not supposed to be easy or smooth. It's just possible with grit, hard work, and intelligence.

What if I shift from seeing schools as a "staircase to knowledge" to seeing them as "a climbing wall of knowledge?"

A staircase is something that takes effort, but every effort has been made to engineer the experience to be as stable, organized, and safe as possible.

A climbing wall still has safety features - you belay - but the point is to give you a better climbing experience. It's fundamentally a demanding, self-structured solo activity. It includes a combination of deadlines and grades as a commitment device, and some social supports. But if I take organic chemistry, learning it through a class is just the same as learning it solo, except that the experience has been structured the same way that routes get established on a climbing wall.

Does having that perspective on school change the way I interpret its "shortcomings?"

Definitely.

If schools do as good or better a job than students could have done as autodidacts, then they've succeeded. I doubt I could force as much knowledge of chemistry, linear algebra, and molecular biology that I'm acquiring this quarter into my head if I was studying on my own. It would probably be less stressful without the constant pressure, but it would be slower at the very least. If school can ram more knowledge into your head in 12 weeks than you could have shoved in there on your own, then it's doing its job.

If schools actually hold students back relative to what they could have learned on their own, then they've failed. I have taken one or two classes from teachers who truly seemed to add so much stress, with so many negative idiosyncrasies, that I think there's a good chance I'd have been better off with pure self-study. But even so, it's very hard to know, since I wouldn't have had the commitment device of having to earn a grade. And that's just my experience - maybe others would have done better in the class than on their own.

In the future, I will try to shift to the "climbing wall" perspective. School is here to offer some support and structure. But it's also here, primarily here, to breathe down my neck and MAKE me learn. It's here for the same reason the drill instructor is at boot camp. It's not to make the 100 pushups easy. It's to make damned sure that I do them and that I can't give myself an easy pass, push it off til next hour, next day, next week, next year. I'm paying $600 per quarter for a drill instructor.

Supplying the curiosity, the organization, the learning, the success - that's entirely up to me. School's a commitment device first and foremost. It's a place where I can rent educational capital (access to labs, tutoring, grading). It's also a place where I can purchase the opportunity to form relationships that I can leverage into further opportunities, through letters of recommendation, career advice, introductions, and so on.

The least important thing school has to offer is "teaching" or "education" or "learning."

Only I can offer that to myself.

Some teachers are angels, and some are just stinkers.

Sadly, student ratings are partially about this, and partially about how difficult were the lessons.

I like the idea. Ultimately I think it incentivizes teaches to be a bit more likable.  For certain cultures with certin goals this would be beneficial, for others less so.

Epistemic status: babble all the way down, not pruning. But I believe my approach is better than most of other answers here.

The error from other LWers  is not separating the evaluation of lessons to the evaluation of tests. 

Students should be allowed to give good teachers a bonus. For each lesson, in any moment of the lesson, the students should have the possibility to rate the teacher's performance on some metrics. Think on a mobile application that does that. Do you know when you take a ride with an Uber and immediately after finishing the ride you rate it? We should have the same possibility of rating teachers after their lessons (up until some limit, e.g., you had your lesson on Monday, you won't be able to rate it on the next month, you have until a week to rate this lesson). The teacher should be paid a bonus when he gets good scores. This bonus would be added lesson by lesson to teacher's account. 

Let's say each week I have three different lessons with professors A, B and C.
Professor A gives me 2 hours lesson/week. 
Professor B gives me 4 hours lesson/week. 
Professor C gives me 6 hours lesson/week. 

For each two hours lesson, the student gains one point to spend. So, I have 6 points to spend on spend on professors A, B, C in any way I choose to.

The professor A, I've just watched his lesson and I loved it. I give him 3 points. Professor B is good too, I like him, but I will just give him two points. Professor C is not that good teacher, but he seems to be working hard on these particular difficult topics, I'll give him one point.

On the end of the month, good teachers will be rewarded by how good their performance were on THE LESSONS. I haven't spent time thinking on a good function to convert the scores received by the teacher on this week to money, but it doesn't seem hard to create a fair one.

We should have a separate rating system for the evaluation of the tests applied by the teacher, so we could separate the feelings that appear on our heart when we compare the quality of the lessons to the difficulty of the problems posed by the professor on his test. We know when we go bad on an exam, "that's the teacher's fault". So this separate system would be more strict, asking several questions like "How difficult was this test? How many hours have you studied before doing it? The questions on the test were related to things taught on the lessons? How do you compare the difficult of the test questions to the difficult of the lessons' questions? Leave a comment about the test on the following Entry box". Obviously I haven't pruned these questions, they just arrived at my mind, but certainly there exist a very good set of questions that could let us investigate how well the teachers perform in creating tests and also reward them when we detect it. 

Thinking again about the first system, it should also have some questions about the lesson. "How good the professor explains the concepts? How organized he is? Did you learn the concepts? How do you rate the difficulty of the topics this teacher is trying to explain to you? [Leave here what kind of questions you believe would improve this questionnaire]. Leave a comment about the lesson on the following Entry box". 

It shouldn't be needed for a student to answer these questions to give all his points  for a teacher. But we could weight the student points by how many questions he answered. For example, if I gave you 3 points and I said why I've done this, this weighs more than a student that gives you 3 points but doesn't explain why he does that. Justified rating is worth more than unjustified rating.

  1. this advantages teachers with larger classes.

Your reward function can take in consideration the number of students that participated on the lesson, the number of students the rated the professor, and also you could average the scores, I don't know, come on, you can create a function that is fair for any class size, you just have to think about what function you will use

Where does the money come from?

Diminish all salaries in x%. Now you can redistribute this money more fairly, proportional to performance.

My second-favorite teacher in undergrad was relatively unpopular because he taught very difficult classes, at least some of which were required to graduate.

That's why it is important to evaluate the LESSONS every week. And when the test comes, this is a different evaluation. This professor was unpopular due to difficult tests, not to bad lessons, right? 

Most universitites have already systems where students evaluate their teachers at the end of the year and the scores do figure into administrative decisions of the university

That's the problem. At the end of the year you are evaluating the "teacher", which means 

If I find the teacher a good professor and I give him +5 points, but I sucked at his tests, and I give -10 points for my bad feelings for doing bad on the test, the final evaluation of the teacher is "tis teacher is bad" == -5

If the system rates week by week, we could detect misuse of the system if we suddenly see bad lessons ratings close to the test application (right after the test, for example). 

I don't think this is how market wages work. If it is known that the average teacher gets a $100 bonus, the school will offer $100 less in base pay than it would otherwise.

Maybe not right now, when the change is introduced. But in the following years, the wages will raise slower than they would otherwise, until the balance is achieved.

It doesn't seem bad to pay a little less for the average teacher with average lessons, and pay a little more for the above average teacher with above average lessons. It seems like arbitrage. You do good lessons, you earn more. Why not? And if you can now detect which teachers are much worse than average, you can fire them and get even more students that are interested in this school full of good teachers, because the bad ones can't stay

I don't know about the US education market, but here in Iran, the students don't have much choice at all. Even if they know a professor sucks, they are forced to take his class because the classes of good professors fill up, and they need to pass the course. 

We have very little immediate choice here. At the colleges I’ve attended, any given course is usually taught by one teacher at a time. You’d have to switch schools or maybe take the class a different term.

I like the idea, to the extent that yes, students should have some influence in how they are taught. I'd like it much better if there were a second or even a third SAB, a year or several years later. Otherwise you end up with scenarios where Mr. A is the most well liked Calc 1 teacher, but Mrs. B does a much better job preparing her students for Calc II. Or where you leave a class having no idea what you just learned, but it ends up becoming really important in grad school 4 years later.

That's along the lines of James_Miller's proposal of giving $1,000 to graduating seniors to allocate as merit pay.

(shouldn't it be $150?)