Educators in Georgia are judged in part on how their students rate them in the state’s recently revamped teacher-evaluation system. But weaving student feedback into teacher evaluations has been the practice for nearly a decade in the state’s 7,700-student Murray County school district, where Superintendent Vickie Reed pushed for using student-perception surveys.
As part of Murray County’s surveys, students rate their teachers on a number of variables, including their style of teaching and use of technology. Teachers take the same survey, but assess themselves according to how they think their students rated them.
The goal is to identify any glaring gaps between those two points of view and shrink them—if they exist—every year until they’re gone.
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“It’s important,” said Ms. Reed. “If students don’t think the teachers like them, they’re not going to learn from them.”
And she would know. Ms. Reed, 56, grew up in the high-poverty district tucked into the northwestern corner of Georgia, where the per-capita income is $16,500 and nearly a quarter of the 40,000 residents live below the poverty level. She’s spent her entire career as an educator there, and since becoming superintendent a decade ago, Ms. Reed has put an emphasis on integrating student voices that has drawn praise and replication in other districts.
- Put Students First: When making tough decisions, such as how to adhere to budget cuts, think first of students’ needs. Never compromise on programs or personnel that could curtail their ability to learn or stifle their achievement.
- Authentic Input: Find ways to encourage students in every grade to share their opinions about their educational experiences. That includes everything from safety, to teaching styles, to cafeteria food.
- Taking Ownership: If students feel as if they are making a difference and their voices are being heard, they are more confident and will take ownership of their education. With that, student achievement increases across the board.
“We make lots of efforts to speak with parents and get parents’ input through PTA and parent surveys,” explained Ms. Reed. “But the piece that was missing, I found, or I came to believe several years ago, is who I’m not hearing from is students.”
Taking Students Seriously
Ms. Reed was born in Atlanta and moved with her family to Murray County in 6th grade. After high school, she worked for a decade in the local carpet factory as a claims manager and customer-service representative while earning her bachelor’s degree, her teaching degree, and her master’s and doctoral degrees in curriculum by taking night classes at a local college.
She taught 4th grade at Chatsworth Elementary School for 12 years, followed by a three-year stint as the principal of Gladden Middle School. She then became the curriculum director for the school system before landing the superintendent’s job.
“I’ve never seen myself as an administrator and definitely never the superintendent of a school system,” Ms. Reed said. “I guess that’s because I’m still a teacher at heart.”
When Ms. Reed took the reins of the school system in 2005 after earning her doctorate, one of the first actions she took was to give teachers and principals training on the effects of poverty on children so that they could better understand some of the challenges their students face in learning.
The student-perception surveys sprouted from that training.
“Dr. Reed decided we should give our kids a survey and let our kids tell us, ‘Do our teachers know us?’ ” said Gina Linder, the principal at Murray County High School. “Do they care about us? Do they challenge us? That all came from Dr. Reed.”
But the student-perception surveys are just one of several ways Ms. Reed puts an emphasis on integrating student voices.
Four years ago, she tasked the principals of the district’s elementary and middle schools to establish student councils; Murray County’s lone high school already had one.
She meets with each school’s student council two or three times during the school year gathering feedback: Do you like your teachers? How’s the cafeteria food? Do you feel safe? What do you want to see changed?
“It keeps me in touch with kids,” Ms. Reed said. “We can’t lose touch of who our audience is. They are our audience, and that’s one way to engage them.”
At one such meeting last year, students on the council at Mountain Creek Academy complained about feeling unsafe in their lunchroom space.
“We have a lunchroom that has a lot of windows in it,” said Paula Martin, the principal of the alternative middle school for at-risk students. “One of the things we found out is that when the children were in that large space with all the windows, they felt uncomfortable because people could see them.”
As a result, the district’s parent-teacher organization tinted the windows so that the students can see out, but others can’t see in.
Student safety is a major component of each student council’s responsibility. In 2009, a Murray County high school student who had been bullied committed suicide. The incident became a high-profile case nationwide in the recent push for school systems to take bullying more seriously. Ms. Reed said, however, that her focus on integrating student voices was not a result of the incident, but something the district had been moving toward for years.
Creating a student council at each school wasn’t enough for Ms. Reed. After reading research that bolstered her belief that successful schools are often those that are best at integrating student voices, she took the concept of student councils one step further.
By pulling a couple of students from each school’s council, she set up a district council, representing viewpoints of every grade and every school in Murray County. The district council, which is in its second year of operation, visits each school once during the school year in order to meet with teachers and provide them feedback.
“She said, ‘I want a district council,’ and so she formed a student panel that went to every school in our system, and the whole focus of the panel was for students to give feedback to teachers about what great teachers do,” said Principal Linder. “That was huge. That was one of the best things we’ve done as a faculty, is hearing about what great teachers are.”
During those meetings, Ms. Reed asks each student to respond to a series of questions she asks.
The questions include prompts such as, “What do you think makes a great teacher?” and “How do you like to use technology?” After that, teachers can ask students questions, and students can ask the teachers questions.
“Last year, their job was to get together as a group and talk about what a positive classroom looked like for them,” said Ms. Martin. “We had elementary kids all the way through high schools talking about what makes a great classroom and what makes a great teacher. They went from school to school and presented that.”
In some cases, that feedback resulted in schools’ adjusting their teaching style.
“They wanted to tell the teachers this is what we like and this is what we don’t like,” said Ms. Reed of last year’s meetings. “One thing that came out in every meeting is that relationships matter to us. We need adults in the building that care about us.”
‘They Will Listen to the Kids’
District council members are also responsible for taking the temperature of their classmates on various subjects and reporting back to Ms. Reed, and also making suggestions of their own for things they’d like to see changed or added to their education experience.
Last year, the district council suggested that students deliver the annual, year-end report card of Murray County schools, something the district calls the State of the Schools—an evening presentation for parents that documents factors like achievement, graduation, and dropout rates and provides information regarding the school budget. Staff from the central office previously presented the information at the annual meeting.
“But now, they [students] get up there and can explain to you what CCRPI is,” Ms. Reed said of the shorthand for the College- and Career-Ready Performance Index that’s used to gauge school improvement. “I have teachers who can’t even explain that.”
“Besides, nobody wants to listen to us,” added Ms. Reed, laughing. “But they will listen to the kids, and they love it. And you know what? Who’s better to be our spokespersons than them?”
It keeps me in touch with kids. We can’t lose touch of who our audience is. They are our audience.
The district council was also the mastermind behind expanding clubs to middle and elementary schools.
Gladden Middle School, for example, has 32 student-led clubs, more than many high schools around the country.
Offerings range from the more typical journalism, drama, and science clubs to the more unusual, such as scrapbooking, line dancing, and cross-stitch clubs, and even a club for student-athletes to learn what it takes to get recruited by colleges. The club meetings are built into the school day and led by teachers who have experience with each subject.
“We do a lot of great things on student council, like organizing a canned-food drive and wrapping Christmas presents for needy families,” said Brian Martinez, an 8th grader at Gladden who has been a member of the student council for two years. The ice cream and ballroom dancing clubs, he added, are the most popular at the school.
Brian said the student council’s opinion is taken seriously by teachers and Ms. Reed.
“If you have an idea, everybody pays attention to you,” he said.
In interviews with Ms. Reed’s colleagues, they all underscored her commitment to increasing student achievement.
“One of the things that I really like about Dr. Reed is that she is an advocate for the students and she does not compromise,” said Spencer Gazaway, the secondary-curriculum director for the district. “Whether it’s program platforms, curriculum, facilities, she does not compromise on any of those that would negatively impact student achievement.”
Indeed, even amid significant budget cuts that have shortened the school calendar from 180 days to 160, Ms. Reed has been able to drive higher student achievement year after year. She credits much of that success to the way she allows students to take ownership of their education and the weight she places on student input when making decisions for the district.
Since Ms. Reed became superintendent, Murray County has made some of the biggest jumps in graduation rates in Georgia.
When she took the helm, the district’s graduation rates were hovering just above 50 percent. But last school year, its graduation rate increased from 75 percent to 80 percent, surpassing the average state growth, which inched up from 72 percent to 73 percent.
“Our vision is student success, no exception, no excuses,” said Ms. Linder. “Dr. Reed absolutely means it.”
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A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 2015 edition of Education Week