School & District Management Opinion

Students Evaluating Teachers: Handle With Care

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 08, 2014 5 min read
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Is there a connection between the quality of teaching and the quantity of learning? For most students, the answer is yes, logically and in the research. This year has brought more public attention to the evaluation of teachers and school leaders than we remember any profession receiving. The March issue of School Administrator, the monthly magazine from the American Association of School Administrators, has six articles on on evaluations of teachers. The emphasis on articles about teacher evaluation indicates the awareness that this remains an unresolved issue with which leaders are wrestling. The good news is the issue offers a variety of articles and perspectives allowing the reader to look for information that fits her or his own situation.

The new evaluation systems adopted across the country are, in some states, more than a couple of years into implementation. The purpose of these new processes was to assist leaders as they work with teachers to improve teacher performance and, through that, student achievement. No matter the stated purpose, the hard core perspective is teachers have to get better at what they do.

The principal evaluation process was put into place at the same time. In that case, principals were going to be observed by their supervisors and, in part, they would be evaluated on how well they evaluated teachers. And at the same time, or close to it, changing curriculum, standards, and teaching practices were all causing shifts in our schools. Issues of safety, equity, poverty, race, failure, attendance, dropout rates and new technology needs continue to call for our attention. The icing on the cake - the diminishing resources came at the very time it seemed that we needed more. This is our reality and bemoaning it hasn’t made it better.

It is no wonder we look for quick fixes. Articles addressing a prioritized need that might give us some insight into a burdensome challenge are valuable. At least, they can create a conversation about options. A charged example lies within the articles of this March issue of School Administrator. The one catching everyone’s attention is Students Evaluating Teacher: It may sound preposterous, but school systems are soliciting feedback from students at all grade levels using formal protocols. It is grounded in respected research, offers successful implementation models and includes resources for consideration. It also raises some red flags as cautions and stimulates powerful questions to be answered.

Ron Ferguson, a professor with the Harvard Graduate School of Education noted as an authority on student evaluation of teachers is quoted in the article.

It’s a lot more complicated than it looks, more difficult than doing something like administering state exams. You have to match teachers and students. You have to make sure surveys are done in a way that’s not totally disruptive, that’s conducted confidentially and effectively, in the right classrooms at the right time with the right kids (pp. 20-21).

Dr. Ferguson also emphasizes that “It takes years to develop a really effective survey” when suggesting the most effective surveys are those developed by experienced commercial providers (p.20).

Can we expect teachers who are facing criticism for not teaching to the standards or the changed curriculum, who are not collaborating or learning new information, to listen to even more voices? Will this change behavior or will this serve to shut down more teachers, or worse, leave the opinions of students as the “ace” in the process? Adding student feedback requires a thoughtful step back.

The article reports that in Boston the move to use student feedback in teacher evaluation was a result of a Student Advisory Council who wanted a voice in teacher evaluations.

Strong resistance by teachers and others soon prompted the student council to switch to a more modest, voluntary process in which teachers could tweak their work based on student observations only they saw (pp. 22-23).

Boston’s effort to move to a mandatory student feedback system took years of work. They began in 2006. The article reports that once progress was made, a pilot, using a commercially developed product, was used to evaluate “some high school teachers” (p.23). This says go slowly, pilot whatever you do and seek volunteers for the pilot.

In Alaska, the article reports, there has been a law for almost twenty years that requires school districts to give students and parents the opportunity to “participate in teacher evaluations.” The Anchorage School District mentioned in the article, reported participation in the evaluation activity was optional and generated a low response rate. They do not use it as a part of the teachers’ formal observation process but do use it to inform the conversations that take place during the teachers’ annual evaluation process.

The article also reports that in Pennsylvania, 15% of the teachers’ evaluation is already mandated to be based upon student feedback. The student feedback “will be a K-12 survey that is grade- and age-specific” (p.25).

On the whole, well-liked teachers are the ones who care deeply for their students and who continuously work at learning and adapting their skills to meet the needs of the students in front of them. They are dedicated to teaching their students and helping them reach new heights by adapting and differentiating their curriculum in order for their student to meet the mark or exceed it. They make themselves available after school, during their planning periods, and some even through their lunch, through the Internet and their webpages. Students like them and respect them. And if we survey the landscape, we know these teachers. There are many in our schools right now.

Questions we need to be asking:

  • Has our system of feedback and evaluation improved teaching?
  • Has it helped us identify and remove those who are not good enough to remain in our classrooms?
  • Has our system of feedback and evaluation improved student achievement?
  • How will student feedback affect the organizations we lead?
  • How will the teacher evaluation process develop as a reliable, confidential, and trusted process from which student achievement becomes the beneficiary?
  • What will work for the unique needs of our district and community?
  • How do we present this idea and engage teachers, students, parents, principals, and the community at large?
  • What do the teacher leaders think of the practice?

Teacher evaluation and principal evaluation is a professional and a personal issue...so, too, is student learning. This conjuncture needs to be traversed with care.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.