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Opinion
Teaching Profession Commentary

Students Grading Us?

By Bruce S. Cooper & Kathleen P. King — June 11, 2003 6 min read
A national, online teacher rating system is already in place.

It was perhaps inevitable that students, using the Internet, would set up a national system for evaluating their schoolteachers, administrators, and counselors. Well, it’s up and running, and quite informative, if not, at times, devastating.

Log on to www.ratemyteacher.com and see a map of the nation; click on the map for a region of the country, then click on the state, city, and school. That allows you to pull up a listing of all the teachers in that school and read how their students “grade” them, from 1 to 5, on the categories of helpfulness, clarity, easiness, and overall quality. As of late April of this year, students in U.S. public and private high schools and middle schools had entered 1.159 million ratings on ratemyteacher, for over 200,000 teachers in 13,500 schools. In fact, on April 22 alone, 17,649 students used the system for rating teachers in their schools.

The coding for the site is direct and user-friendly, building on the familiar tradition of “smile sheet” evaluation forms: A happy face means a “good quality” rating; a frown indicates “poor quality"; and a groovy face, one with sunglasses, means that the teacher is rated “popular.” A space is left, of course, for comments. The listing even indicates how many hits a teacher has received, and the dates and times of those entries.

The system is as easy to use as it is rewarding for high-ranked teachers, and traumatic for those whom students rate negatively. Take a typical Ms. Brown, a 12th grade history teacher who was rated low on easiness (2.6 out of 5.0), meaning she was tough; high on helpfulness (4.4) and clarity (4.4); 3.0 on popular, with an overall rating of 4.5. As might be expected, the students’ comments were positive, too: “She is an excellent teacher, uses videos, and is very engaging.” “I love Ms. Brown; she’s the best.” “Best teacher in the entire world.” “Clear, uses video clips to reinforce the history lesson. Class is strongly recommended.”

But negative reviews also abound; just click on the real but renamed Mr. Robinson, who teaches in that same school. He has a low overall rating of 1.9 out of 5.0, a zero for popularity, with clarity coming in at only 1.8. One student wrote: “Does not teach a thing and expects you to know all the material. If you ever get him as a teacher, either transfer out, or get a tutor.” And if that’s not bad enough, try these comments: “What a pushover. He doesn’t teach at all. I just sit in his class and go online.” “He’s a nice guy, and I’m sure he is smart, but some people don’t know how to teach.”

While such a system was sure to appear, it raises several interesting questions as well as some concerns. If students are in fact consumers, and these respondents are all middle and high school kids attending public and private schools, then having a way of assessing their teachers and sharing information can be seen as necessary. If school supervisors are unwilling or unable to evaluate teachers to determine how well they relate to their students, then the kids will do it themselves.

After all, almost everything we purchase and use today is assessed, reviewed, and the results made public. So “consumer reports” on teachers may be no different. And in some ways, those teachers who receive universally poor ratings, both numerically and anecdotally, should be made aware of how their students feel about them. If the school authorities won’t give teachers adequate and timely feedback, their students may and probably will.

But this kind of student-assessment system raises the question of authority and accuracy to a new level, and in a deeply personal, as well as professional, context. In an age when “research” for many is synonymous with searching the Web, is the general public going to apply to this exercise standards of careful evaluation regarding purpose, bias, authority, and accuracy? Are we as careful to examine thoroughly information on the Internet about another person as we are narrative accounts of highly politicized events?

Though it runs the danger of hurting teachers and teaching, it also holds the promise of enhancing education through public exposure of strengths and weaknesses.

This is where the dangers of this system become increasingly apparent. What if students unjustly accuse a teacher of a bad act? Well, the system has one small safeguard: Before a comment can be listed, a student proctor (name not listed) reviews the comments, to remove bad language or accusations. But is that enough?

A second problem is that teachers, as they learn about this Internet service, will read the student comments and be either uplifted or deeply hurt. Wouldn’t it be better if students and teachers had a conversation about what’s bothering them?

And shouldn’t this conversation be private and protected, between teacher and student, and not anonymous and open for the whole world to see? Or perhaps, the comments should be available only to the teachers affected: a two- way conversation between a student and the teacher, in other words, not a public electronic bulletin board available for anyone and everyone to read.

Undoubtedly, the Internet is a powerful tool for communicating, evaluating, and increasing involvement among students and teachers. So far, no one has stopped or challenged this new network; it’s on the Web for everyone to use. And already, 17,000 of the nation’s 31,000 middle and high schools are involved, demonstrating both the power and the ease of communicating such “data” about teachers. But it also exposes the dangers of uncontrolled, uncorroborated information about professionals working with adolescents in schools. Do our students and parents apply critical thinking to the information they gather from the Web? Do they consider the sources? Or do they sometimes jump to conclusions prematurely and make decisions, or accusations, on the basis of less than valid and reliable information?

Our society is one that values data-driven decisionmaking. A format such as www.ratemyteacher.com gives the appearance of being data-driven without any of the safeguards of statistical measurement, scientific review, or the right of response and rejoinder.

Some teachers may read and heed what they see; others may simply ignore the whole phenomenon. But whatever happens, we’re seeing the beginnings of students’ use of electronic networks to rate their teachers, to communicate their positive and negative feelings. Those who are good teachers in the eyes of students will get positive responses and feelings of pride in their work. The poorly rated will see student concerns and either suffer in silence or try to do something about them. And the average teacher will hear both praise and criticism, some of it justified and some not.

In the end, the system will add another dimension to the “publicness” of teaching, a profession once practiced behind classroom doors, out of sight of those not in the class. Though it runs the danger of hurting teachers and teaching, it also holds the promise of enhancing education through public exposure of strengths and weaknesses.

Most important, this network is a sign of the world to come: a world where information will be instant, interactive, international, and focused on activities that concern citizens of all ages. It was inevitable.

Bruce S. Cooper is a professor of education and the vice chairman of the division of educational leadership, administration, and policy at Fordham University’s graduate school of education, in New York City. His most recent book is Better Policies, Better Schools. Kathleen P. King is an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at Fordham, with a special interest in adult and continuing education and in technology.

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