Teaching Profession

Companies Honing Tools to Survey Students About Teachers

By Sean Cavanagh — August 26, 2014 7 min read
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Few measures of teachers’ classroom ability inspire as much optimism among researchers—and as much unease among educators—as surveys of students. Now, commercial providers, nonprofit organizations, and foundations are working to expand and refine the scope of such surveys in an effort to improve their usefulness to schools and teachers, and potentially lower their costs.

Over the coming months, well-known and well-financed players in the student-survey field plan to launch new efforts to increase the reach and adjust the focus of those instruments.

To date, much of the attention paid to student surveys has centered on the most debated aspect of how they are applied—as a factor in the performance evaluation of teachers. But many supporters say those policies often obscure the surveys’ greater potential, which developers are now trying to tease out in more detail: their ability to provide teachers with relevant and timely feedback on students’ academic experiences and the culture of individual classrooms, and give educators the feedback they need to improve professionally.

“We believe students understand an impressive amount about what’s working in the classroom, and what can be improved,” said Rob Ramsdell, the co-founder and CEO of Tripod Education Partners, a newly formed commercial organization in Cambridge, Mass., that evolved out of a well-known developer of surveys. “It’s a pretty pivotal time for this kind of work. ... There’s a lot of interest, and there are a lot of new uses for these types of surveys.”

Tripod officials, who have been working on student surveys for more than a decade, believe they are poised to make major strides. Within a few months, Tripod, which has distributed its surveys through the commercial entity Cambridge Education, is planning to launch itself as an independent organization, with the goal of improving teachers’ professional learning and providing affordable survey work and analysis to a variety of clients, including small ones with limited budgets.

Other organizations are putting money and research into trying to improve the quality and usefulness of student surveys.

Panorama Education, a Boston-based for-profit company, is unveiling a new survey it has developed in partnership with researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, an effort the project’s backers vow will be rooted in best practices in survey methodology.

That survey will be open-source, meaning anyone can use it and make changes to it for free, and share changes they make to the survey, Panorama officials said. While the rights to the survey questions are free, the company—whose financial backers include Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg—will charge districts if they decide to contract with Panorama to administer the survey, analyze the results, or provide teachers with reports.

The open-sourcing will allow districts to save money, Panorama predicts, and encourage the sharing and refinement of survey questions among both K-12 officials and researchers.

“Our primary goal is to make sure that everybody has access to good questions,” said Aaron Feuer, the CEO of Panorama Education. “It matters to us that every district does this well.”

Sampling the providers

A number of commercial and nonprofit organizations are involved in surveying students for teacher evaluation or other purposes.

Tripod Education Partners
Organization grew out of a project developed by Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson; now preparing to launch as a new entity with a focus on professional improvement.

Cambridge Education
A subsidiary of the Mott MacDonald Group, a global consulting company; commercial entity conducts and reports survey results, and consults with districts.

Battelle for Kids/ Gallup
Ohio-based nonprofit works with polling group to offer surveys, at a cost, focused on student engagement, hope, and their sense of belonging in school, as well as teachers’ classroom management.

My Student Survey
Nashville-based company has begun offering interactive, online reports to educators with feedback collected in student surveys, allowing for comparisons with larger teacher populations.

Panorama Education
Boston-based company says it has administered 1.5 million student surveys to date; now working with Harvard researchers to launch an open-source series of questions, which it says will lower costs for districts.

Source: Education Week

Panorama was founded by Mr. Feuer and other undergraduates at Yale University in 2012. By the time they graduated, he says, they had secured 1,300 school clients. The company now produces surveys for 5,000 schools nationwide. Panorama has been working with Hunter Gehlbach, an associate professor of education at Harvard, who is leading a team working on refining survey questions based on rigorous methodology.

“The hope for me, and for Panorama, is really that this has an impact on the caliber of data we get back,” Mr. Gehlbach said.

Piloting Survey in N.C.

The open-source survey instrument envisioned by Panorama and Mr. Gehlbach appealed to Thomas Tomberlin, the director of district human resources for the North Carolina education department, who arranged to have a group of districts pilot-test the survey questions. (The North Carolina official studied under Mr. Gehlbach at Harvard.)

Open-sourcing the information—which has been used by Tripod and other developers to varying degrees—gives K-12 systems more flexibility to choose whom they want for the survey management, rather than getting “stuck with [one] vendor for all aspects of the survey and reporting,” Mr. Tomberlin said.

North Carolina plans to pilot the survey for a larger population of schools in the spring, Mr. Tomberlin said. The state does not use student surveys to evaluate teachers. The costs of student surveys vary according to many factors. Cambridge Education typically charges $2 to $5 per student, depending on the volume of surveys and whether they’re administered online, which is cheaper than on paper, the company told Education Week in a statement. The process of delivering reliable high-stakes results, such as those used for teacher evaluation, also increases costs, Cambridge officials said. They added that they have reduced prices by making those processes more efficient.

Seven states already have enough faith in the power of student surveys to include them as part of their systems for evaluating teachers, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based organization that seeks to improve standards in the profession. Nine states explicitly allow but don’t require surveys to be included.

Including student input in evaluations “sets off every kind of alarm bell” for educators, who worry that “the teacher who brings cupcakes to class is going to do well,” said Sandi Jacobs, the NCTQ’s vice president and managing director for state policy.

But the reality is that student-survey results account for only a small slice of the formula for evaluating teachers in those states, Ms. Jacobs said. A former elementary school teacher, Ms. Jacobs said she would have been skeptical of student surveys—but also intrigued by seeing breakdowns of the number of students reporting that they were having a positive experience in her class, and those who were not.

That information can inform teachers’ work, she said, without compelling them to “upend what [they’re] going to do,” she said.

In addition to Panorama and Tripod, other players in the student-survey marketplace include My Student Survey, a Nashville, Tenn.-based for-profit. The company offers surveys for the purposes of both teacher feedback and evaluation. Its clients include not only states, districts, and schools, but also statewide teachers’ unions in Rhode Island and New York, which hired the company to develop surveys, said Ryan Balch, My Student Survey’s founder and CEO.

Mr. Balch said his company makes its survey questions publicly available on its website. Open-sourcing—by his group, Panorama, and others—brings transparency to surveys and increases’ teachers confidence in them, he said.

Sharing Results

My Student Survey recently began making online, interactive reports, based on survey results, available to teachers, who can compare students’ impressions of their work against other populations of educators, locally or around the country.

Tripod has a relatively long history of making some of its survey questions public. Mr. Ramsdell and Ronald F. Ferguson, a Harvard University economist who developed Tripod, led the work on student surveys that were included in the Measures of Effective Teaching project, a widely publicized analysis first released in 2010 and overseen by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that sought to identify the characteristics of effective classroom work. (Education Week receives support from the Gates Foundation for coverage of efforts to implement college-and career-ready standards for students.)

Tripod officials made a portion of their survey questions available to the public. Since then, the questions have been shared across school systems, and among individual teachers looking for insights on how students are responding to classroom strategies, said Steve Cantrell, a lead senior program officer for the Gates foundation.

Mr. Cantrell said he recognizes teachers’ wariness of using surveys for evaluations. But he noted that student surveys were the “most reliable measure” of teachers’ effectiveness included in the Gates study. Those results were more consistent, for instance, than classroom observations of teachers or their performance as judged by student test scores, he said.

“We’re not asking students to judge the quality of the teaching,” Mr. Cantrell said. “We’re asking them to judge the instructional environment. ...This is information that teachers can’t get from anyone else but the students.”

Nonprofit organizations, like Battelle for Kids, have also become interested in the information that can be gleaned from student surveys. In partnership with the Gallup polling organization, the Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle offers an online survey, which can be taken by students on computers or mobile devices, designed to measure students’ sense of hope, engagement, and belonging—as well as teachers’ classroom management.

Battelle and Gallup are convinced that students’ belief in their learning environment is crucial to their academic and long-term success.

“Students won’t learn as much if they don’t feel they belong in the classroom,” said Tim Hodges, the director of research for Gallup Education. “It’s a false choice [when] people say it’s [only] the soft stuff, or the academic measures, that matter” to students’ success.

Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2014 edition of Education Week as Companies Competing to Improve Student Surveys in Evolving Market


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