And the Survey Says . . .

January 01, 1999 4 min read

District administrators spent countless hours and almost $70,000 last year preparing the forms and mailing them. For their efforts, they got back, on average, just three or four responses per classroom--not nearly enough to give principals a reliable sampling of opinion.

Undaunted by the meager return, district officials are trying again this year. They’ve trimmed the forms and simplified the questions in the hope that the mailers can foster greater parental involvement and ultimately yield valuable information about the quality of teacher performance. “The school board and superintendent are trying to meet the spirit of the law, not just the letter of the law,” says board member Kathi Gillespie, noting that the district solicits student feedback, as well. “It’s just like how a restaurant would ask: ‘How’s our service? Was it good, fair, or poor?’ ”

Nationwide, about one of every 100 districts has some method of asking parents to assess teacher and administrator performance, according to Richard Mannatt, director of the School Improvement Model Center at Iowa State University in Ames. Florida districts are seeking comment from parents for the first time this year, thanks to a new state law that requires districts to solicit parent feedback. And last spring, the 37,000-student Rochester, New York, district invited parents to participate in a teacher- evaluation process.

Most districts ask for parent opinions on a limited basis, making comment forms available in school offices or sending them home with student report cards. Some survey a limited number of parents. But Anchorage officials decided to go districtwide with their survey as a public relations move, says Gillespie. “We’re opening the door and saying, ‘Sit down, let’s talk.’ ” And if the response is good, school leaders say they hope to use the parents’ remarks to identify trends in teacher performance and to help evaluate teachers. A teacher won’t be fired because of the comments of one angry parent, says Lee Wilson, director of labor relations for the district. “But if I have a high school teacher with 135 kids, and 80 or 90 parents say the same thing, that’s a pretty good indication of what’s happening.”

Representatives of the local parents’ association and teachers’ union remain divided over one aspect of the parent survey: anonymity. Parents who answer this year’s surveys are not required to sign their names, despite the Anchorage Education Association’s objection. “We should be able to meet our accuser,” says Erin Donahue, a 3rd grade teacher at Willowhah Elementary School who served on the union’s evaluation-advisory committee. “We should be able to sit down with them and talk things through.”

The anonymous format also provides greater opportunity for fraud, complains Rich Kronberg, president of the union, an affiliate of the National Education Association. A parent with an ax to grind, he says, could fill out numerous surveys.

In Rochester’s teacher-evaluation program, parents signed their surveys and sent them directly to teachers and principals. District officials emphasized that the survey was intended to improve parent-teacher relations, and they estimate that roughly one in three families participated. “We did a major campaign to get this message out to parents,” says district spokeswoman Barbara Jarzyniecky. “I think that’s why we did get a good response.”

But representatives of Anchorage’s parent association contend that most parents would be reluctant to sign such forms for fear that some teachers would seek retribution for negative comments. “You could never convince a parent that a negative review wouldn’t somehow hurt a child,” says Dianne Etter, president of the Anchorage Council of PTAs.

Some teachers complain that parents aren’t in the classroom enough to be able to fairly evaluate their work. But Etter says parents can often get a good sense of a classroom by talking with their children and by looking over homework assignments. “You don’t have to see a teacher in action to see that the job’s getting done,” Etter argues. “You see what your student is bringing home.”

In addition to seeking parent feedback, Anchorage officials also ask students in grades 3 to 12 to comment on their teachers’ performance. Last year, teachers found that the younger elementary students had trouble understanding some of the language on the survey form, so district administrators this year modified the questionnaire for them.

Wilson, the labor-relations director, says that because so few parents responded last year, most principals found the students’ comments--particularly those of junior high and high school kids--far more useful than the parents’. Principals said the students’ views often reinforced their own observations of a teacher’s strengths and weaknesses. “More often than not,” Wilson says, “the kids were on target.”

After such dramatic changes to the district’s evaluation system, three tenured teachers identified last year as low performers quit rather than undertake the district’s lengthy teacher-improvement process. District officials had only been able to fire one tenured teacher for incompetence in the past 10 years, and they point to the resignations as proof that the new system is working. “When tenured folks who have been in neutral for years realize they’re reachable, that’s significant,” Wilson says.

--Jessica L. Sandham