The Rating Game

February 01, 2001 5 min read
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The parents at Boston Latin School in Massachusetts are no longer publishing the pink booklets of teacher reviews that they sold for $1 at the fall 1999 open house. What seemed like a simple, information-sharing exercise—parents assessing teachers’ lectures, attitudes, and course expectations, among other areas—has proved too controversial an activity to repeat. Staff members, some of whom received poor grades, decried the survey’s slam-book tone. They also questioned its iffy methodology: Parents of only 360 of Boston Latin’s 2,300 students participated in the review process, evaluating teachers based on conversations with their kids and informal interactions with faculty.

“The onslaught of negative reactions from teachers and the administration made parents nervous,” says parent Bob Tumposky. “This year’s survey return rate is down, so rather than providing results for individual teachers [for the 2000-2001 school year], we simply did departments and a schoolwide evaluation, which is fairly useless.”

The change brought relief to Chuck Aversa, an 8th grade English teacher at the prestigious 7-12 public school. “That type of evaluation has a deleterious effect on faculty and really caused bad feelings,” he says. Aversa much prefers to get feedback on his teaching directly from his students, who evaluate him at the end of the school year, using a form he designed. (While he mentions the results of his personal survey to administrators, he doesn’t show the actual responses to supervisors.)

Avoiding tensions like those in the Boston clash is a challenge for a growing number of educators, as more schools across the country seek to incorporate parent and student assessment in teacher reviews. Teacher evaluations with input from parents are now state policy in Alaska and Florida, while requirements for student feedback have been implemented in places such as Mesa, Arizona; Overland Park, Kansas; and Ridgefield, Connecticut.

Framed as part of the movement for school accountability, these types of reviews, sometimes called 360-degree evaluations, are an approach borrowed from the corporate world. The idea is that employees should be reviewed not only by those who supervise them but also by the people they supervise, by their clients, and by their peers. In the school context, recent demand for such evaluations confronts teachers with another example of how today’s consumer-oriented parents can get pushy as they scrutinize their children’s education.

“Everyone thinks they know how to be a teacher,” says Mary Hynes, a school board member in Arlington County, Virginia. The problem with parent evaluations, she says, is that no objective standard is enunciated to the public. “Parents may be suited to comment on their interaction with the teacher, whether the teacher is easy to reach, and whether assignments are clear,” Hynes says. “But they may be ill-equipped to comment on discipline in the classroom, and they may not have a sense of where their child falls on the spectrum. The children, bless their hearts, can’t tell the whole story either, in that they don’t always know where a lesson is going. But the older students, in particular, can comment on the class atmosphere, and whether they feel challenged and free to participate.”

Such distinctions are echoed by Joan Baratz-Snowden, acting director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C. “If you ask me to evaluate a Firestone tire, I can tell you whether it blows out on the road, but I can’t talk about the tire’s structure.”

But educators in the public school system in Rochester, New York, claim they’ve had success with parental input. According to Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association and an AFT vice president, his district’s parent survey has the support of 83 percent of its teachers. “It’s based on a belief that credibility of assessments is enhanced by multiple and diverse sources, which make them less vulnerable to bias and mismatched information,” he says. “We’re clear about what we’re asking,” he notes, adding that “it would be deprofessionalizing if parents were asked to judge the pedagogy of a teacher’s subject specialty.”

Instead, school administrators asked survey compilers what questions they would include if the survey were for their own kids’ schools. The questions deal with teacher communication, parental involvement, and aspects of the child’s progress observable at home. “It is preceded by a text saying, ‘Please indicate ways in which communication has occurred,’ ‘Who called whom,’ etcetera. And if none of these are checked off by the parent, then the survey is discarded,” Urbanski says. The Rochester teachers’ contract says the survey response rate must be high enough to be statistically significant and is weighted at no more than 25 percent of a teacher’s performance review. “In Olympic diving, the judges don’t raise only one card,” Urbanski says. “We judge patterns, not single events, because sometimes good people do bad things.”

Student evaluation of teachers in Mesa, Arizona, in place for the past two years, seems to be going well. “It’s something confirming the observations by the principal, a solid second opinion,” says Assistant Superintendent Fred Skoglund. “We’ve had no complaints from teachers.” Mesa’s feedback instrument is written in language tailored to the student experience. “If you asked whether the instructor ‘teaches to an objective,’ the junior high student would look at you funny,” Skoglund says. “But we ask, ‘Do you understand what you are supposed to learn?’”

A promising alternative to parent or student input is a system recently adopted in Arlington, Virginia, that allows teachers to set their own professional goals, track them, and have progress monitored by a supervisor. Such “professional development plans assume the teachers are reflective and responsible professionals,” says school board member Hynes, “so the results are more long-lasting.”

—Charles S. Clark


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