“I would love to have the students grade the teachers at the end of the year as opposed to just the other way around so that teachers get feedback,” Mitt Romney told an audience at the NBC News “Education Nation” Summit in New York a few weeks ago. To a lot of education policy insiders, that seemed to be reference to the increasing use of student surveys as an additional measure for evaluating and providing feedback to teachers.
Romney’s remarks came hot on the heels of a long article headlined “Why Kids Should Grade Teachers” by Amanda Ripley in the Atlantic. DC Public Schools had granted Ripley access to observe its four-month pilot implementation of the Tripod surveys in six schools earlier this year.
The problem is that nobody anywhere is really asking students to “grade teachers,” and when journalists, pundits, and presidential candidates call it that, they risk undermining the very tool they seek to champion. As use of student surveys has spread, so too have serious misperceptions about how the surveys solicit students’ input. And that could translate into a very serious problem when it comes time to ask even more teachers to buy into the process.
Consider a damning comment that teacher “beccaA” wrote in July on Education Week’s Teacher Beat blog. She said that after her school piloted a new evaluation system this year, a colleague asked some of her students about the survey questions. “‘So how did you guys rate me’ was asked and answered. It seems they rated her ‘bad’ in this area. ‘Why,’ she asked the group of ten. Their answer [was], ‘you make us listen, speak quietly, and do our work.’ And there you have it, without the explanation she would be judged improperly.”
That comment reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what the surveys ask students. Students are never asked to provide some kind of summative rating or grade for the teacher or the classroom. Instead, they are asked a series of carefully worded questions about their classroom experiences that measure specific kinds of instructional practices and classroom conditions that are conducive to student learning. In fact, beccA’s colleague would have performed relatively better, not worse, based on the responses her students seem to have given!
On Wednesday the Gates Foundation’s Measure of Effective Teaching (MET) Project quietly released a new trio of papers about student surveys, including a 24-page brief. That brief, Asking Students About Teaching, provides the clearest and most detailed explanation yet of the benefits and challenges of administering student surveys to evaluate and improve teaching.* If you supply your name and e-mail address, the website even allows you to download the actual surveys the MET Project has administered in thousands of classrooms.
Instead of “grading teachers,” students answer questions about specific aspects of the classroom and their experiences in it. For example, to get at how well teachers clarify the content they are teaching, students respond on a five-point scale to statements such as this:
- “If you don’t understand something, my teacher explains it another way.”
- “My teacher has several good ways to explain each topic that we cover in class.”
- “My teacher knows when the class understands and when we do not.”
When the surveys are administered carefully, the level of agreement in students’ responses is surprising high. After all, students spend hundreds of hours “observing” classroom instruction every year.
To be fair, nothing in the actual body of Amanda Ripley’s excellent Atlantic article creates misperceptions about such surveys. It’s an engaging and informative piece of journalism, one that offers a great complement to the valuable new papers the MET Project released Wednesday. Just skip the headline.
* Disclosure: My friend Jeff Archer wrote the MET paper, and I am currently working with the Gates Foundation on an unrelated project.