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Published in Print: September 17, 2003, as How's Your Teacher? Rate Her Online

How's Your Teacher? Rate Her Online

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A Web site encouraging middle and high school students to evaluate their teachers in cyberspace is being called irresponsible—even libelous—by some educators and their employers.

More than 378,000 teachers working in some 22,000 schools nationwide have been scored on The Web site, started two years ago, also allows students to post positive and negative comments about instructors, so long as the remarks are deemed appropriate by site monitors. Students' ratings and comments are anonymous.

The site is also attracting unexpected participants: Some teachers are posing as students in order to critique their colleagues, posting hurtful messages for everyone on the Internet to see.

Yet the intent of the site is to provide an opportunity for students, said Tim Davis, who owns and operates with his wife, Nancy Davis. Both of them are educators.

"We felt that the students deserve a voice in their education," Mr. Davis said. "This brings accountability back to the classroom."

In most schools, students don't get the chance to evaluate their teachers, he noted. Even in places where such procedures exist, stigma is attached to expressing opinions, he said. Showing support for a teacher, for example, might earn a student the moniker of "suck-up," he said, while those who complain fear retaliation.

"This provides a venue that is more anonymous," added Mr. Davis, who teaches special education in Bakersfield, Calif., and asked his school not be identified. His wife teaches accounting at Santa Barbara Business College in the same city.

Critics, however, give the site low marks.

Students are able to post incorrect information or make nasty remarks about teachers without being held accountable, said Kathleen P. King, a professor of adult education and the director of the regional educational technology center at Fordham University in New York City. Moreover, the feedback isn't constructive, she said, because many teachers aren't aware of the site or able to respond appropriately, as they lack context for the comments.

"They are more or less putting it out there with very little constraint or validation," Ms. King said of the site's operators, "and that's a big issue."

Providing Feedback asks students to grade teachers from 1 to 5 on three variables: helpfulness, clarity, and "easiness." Scores from the first two categories are averaged to come up with an "overall quality" rating. A teacher's easiness score is not included, as site developers determined it may not be linked to the quality of instruction. One is the lowest rating; 5 is the highest in each category.

Students' ratings are then averaged and instructors receive a total score, also from 1 to 5, in addition to one of four smiley faces next to the review—representing "happy," "unhappy," or "stoic," or an icon wearing sunglasses to illustrate the teacher is "popular."

Students say they use both for entertainment and as a research tool.

"All of my friends and everyone I don't know uses this site," said 13-year-old Tricia Berg, who attends Devils Lake Central Middle School in North Dakota, some 75 miles west of Grand Forks in an e-mail. "I had no clue what my teachers were going to be like this year, so this Web site helped me out a lot, like on what teachers have fun classes and the teachers who don't." Many students also say they appreciate the opportunity to provide feedback to instructors.

"The site also gives students an anonymous outlet to both seek revenge on their teachers for making them endure a miserable year, as well as the ability to praise good teachers for their excellent work," added a student from Long Island, N.Y., via e-mail who asked that his name be withheld.

The site is also popular among some educators.

"I like [] because it enfranchises the voices of the kids and begins to dissolve the inane puritanical stigma attached to education that teachers are rated solely by administrators," said Joel Gordon, who teaches English, writing, and communications in grades 9 and 12 at Amsterdam High School, northwest of Schenectady, N.Y. and replied to a query via e-mail. "Isolation is a teacher's greatest enemy, and feedback is critical to continually improving your methods. That's a teacher's responsibility to develop professionally, and she needs to feel the heat."

Some of his colleagues, though, contend the site is inaccurate, libelous, and used for vindictive purposes.

One student on the East Coast, for example, noted that a teacher "makes Godzilla look like the Tooth Fairy." A second commented that a particular instructor "touched my anus."

Comments Monitored

Such comments are supposed to be red-flagged by an army of 1,600 student volunteers, who try to ensure that the ratings are fair, Mr. Davis said. Every comment is monitored by a student who attends the school employing the teacher in question, he said. When monitors have concerns about a comment, he said, they alert a team of five adult reviewers, including the Davises, who then read the items.

According to the rules of the site, "all comments that contain vulgar or profane words, are threatening, are sexual in nature—including 'sexy' or 'hot'—have to do with physical appearance, are name-calling ... , insinuate or state mental/alcohol/drug-use problems, insinuate or state problems with the law ... , have to do with race, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation, age, or are otherwise libelous will be deleted."

Mr. Davis admitted, however, that some inappropriate remarks "slip through the cracks."

Site readers are also allowed to post red flags, he said. That mechanism allows people to articulate why a statement is unfair or inaccurate. Such items, too, are considered by the adult monitors.

But such protocol is insufficient, many observers argue, because some of the information posted is abusive or false.

"This is a striking example of how we need to critically evaluate information on the Web," Ms. King of Fordham University said.

The anonymity of those who rate teachers poses additional hazards.

Last summer, it was educators at Our Lady of Guadalupe School in New York's Brooklyn borough who posted ratings—many of which were disparaging—about each other, according to Mildred Loughnane, a former paraprofessional at the school. She said she was erroneously blamed for the incident and subsequently asked to resign.

"Someone definitely had a vendetta, because more than 200 comments were posted in a two-hour time period," Ms. Loughnane said.

The former paraprofessional called Nancy Davis in an attempt to clear her name, but was told there was no way to track who sent the messages for that purpose. Administrators at the Roman Catholic high school did not return phone calls from Education Week.

Mr. Davis said the computer software can ensure that no one individual can post several messages for a single instructor.

There have been "hundreds of threats of lawsuits" over perceived libel, Mr. Davis said. To his knowledge, he said, none have been filed.

Between 150 and 200 schools and districts, however, have taken action, according to Mr. Davis, by blocking students' access to the site. Nancy Davis said she finds such measures unfair, especially for needy students who don't have computer access at home and want to evaluate their teachers.

Administrators are of two minds about taking that kind of action. Some point out that it is against their schools' policies to allow students access to noneducational Web sites; others deem the site spiteful.

"The teachers just felt that it was unfair to have a site out there where they could pretty much be slandered," said Donna Gregurek, the technology coordinator for Sweeney High School in suburban Houston. "It was such a public thing. We didn't feel it was right."

Mr. Davis hasn't been personally subjected to being rated. His wife, though, received a quality rating of 4.7 on, a sibling site to

"She is," one student wrote, in the kind of comment allowed on the higher education site, "too hot for her clothes."

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Vol. 23, Issue 3, Pages 1,15

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