Some Schools Ask Students to Grade Teachers

Published June 13, 2012

As more schools and districts begin adding objective components to annual teacher evaluations, some are asking students to flip the traditional arrangement and grade their teachers.

This fall, Georgia will be the first state to include student perceptions in teacher evaluations. Along with student test growth and principals’ classroom observations, feedback from student surveys will count for up to 10 percent of a teacher’s “grade.”

Several individual school systems are also testing the idea for the first time. In Memphis City Schools, student surveys counted for 5 percent of a teacher’s overall score in 2011-2012. In Chicago’s pilot this fall, student perceptions will count for 10 percent.

“We believe that student feedback to teachers helps teachers improve, especially when it is structured and consistent like with a survey,” said a Chicago Public Schools spokesman.

Schools from Chicago to Palm Beach are finding feedback plays an important role in evaluation, a switch from the conventional view that student surveys are a poor metric.

Objective Evaluations a ‘Cultural Shift’
Georgia, Memphis, and Chicago join a nationwide trend toward better teacher evaluations. Over the last several years, many districts have begun to replace pass/fail evaluations where nearly 99 percent of teachers pass with multi-faceted measures of effectiveness.

“Focusing on measured outcomes that result from a teacher’s performance is a promising reform,” said Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. “It really is a major cultural shift in the public school system.”

The current system measures a teacher’s value by years spent teaching and credentials, but several decades of student achievement data proves those measurements do not correlate with teacher quality, Winters said.

As a result, typical rubber-stamp teacher evaluations harmed students and protected bad teachers, without providing meaningful feedback for improvement, he said.

“If we’re going to put students first, we really need to turn that system on its head,” Winters said.

Students Know Best?
The new multifaceted evaluations more accurately measure teacher effectiveness, said Ryan Balch, a graduate assistant with Vanderbilt University’s National Center on Performance Incentives, who helped develop and administer Georgia’s pilot in 2010.

“[Students] know who the good teachers are,” he said.

Georgia’s program demonstrated a strong correlation between student evaluations and how much learning a certain teacher instills in his or her students, as measured by student test scores. This is known as a teacher’s “value-added.”

Georgia teachers for grades 3 through 12 will be graded partly by students this fall, said Teresa MacCartney, a deputy superintendent for the Georgia Department of Education.

Those surveys will be different than Balch’s, but will focus on eliciting similar answers: How well are teachers teaching?

“Great student surveys can work really well,” Balch said. “They have a really good ability to predict teachers’ value-added.”

His research found that by responding to questions designed to provide classroom feedback, students could provide accurate insight that professional observers could not, such as how their teachers used class time and whether teachers reviewed material at the end of lessons.

What Teachers Think
Student insights were largely accurate. Of 100 teachers in Georgia’s pilot program, 78 said the student feedback was useful and 80 said it was accurate, Balch said.

Because the program provided individual results, teachers could see their perceived strengths and weaknesses and use the results to improve

But no system is perfect, and student surveys aren’t popular with everyone.

“Student evaluations can be only as valuable as any other feedback you would get from a multiple-choice instrument for which the person filling it out has had no training nor experience,” said Ed Hicks, a Memphis teacher, who worried the surveys amount to little more than a “popularity contest.”

Hicks expressed concern students could use surveys to get even with tough teachers, that even honest surveys could skew evaluations and tempt teachers to inflate student grades.

Mindful of this, school systems have focused survey questions on classroom environment instead of teacher behaviors.

“Research… shows that students respond similarly for the same teacher, regardless of the grade they receive or their prior achievement level,” the CPS spokesman said.

Image by WashULibraries.