Should Students Grade their Teachers?

Some educators suggest student surveys should be part of teacher-effectiveness evaluations

With all the debate in New Jersey and elsewhere about evaluating teachers on how well their students perform, another idea is starting to surface that could prove equally provocative: judging teachers by what their students think of them.

One of the options available to New Jersey school districts as they build teacher evaluation systems is including student surveys among the “multiple measures” of student achievement. The idea is gaining popularity, at least among policy-makers.

Several districts that have been part of the pilot program testing evaluation models have included or plan to include student surveys, although not necessarily as part of a teacher’s grade.

In Alexandria, for instance, teachers survey their students and are required to employ the results in developing self-evaluations and professional goals.

Still, those surveys are not part of the evaluations themselves, and one principal said that’s where it could get problematic.

“I’m not sure that children have enough knowledge about pedagogy to evaluate teachers,” said David Pawlowski, principal of the Alexandria Middle School. “That gets into a tricky area.”

The idea is gaining traction nationally, however, with the release this week of the final report of the massive Measures for Effective Teaching (MET) research project conducted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which looked at a variety of ways of evaluating teachers.

In preliminary findings released over the past few years, the MET study suggested both student achievement and classroom observation be given strong weight in judging the effectiveness of teachers. It’s a common refrain in school reform circles and a centerpiece of teacher evaluation systems in dozens of states, including New Jersey.

But the study also included student surveys as a central component, saying that their judgments provide valuable insight as to how well a teacher is supporting and communicating with his or her charges.

“Only recently have many policymakers and practitioners come to recognize that –when asked the right questions, in the right ways — students can be an important source of information on the quality of teaching and the learning environment in individual classrooms,” reads the introduction to the MET brief on student surveys.

How that is done is where it can get complicated, however, and New Jersey is only starting to grapple with that issue as it demands every district have an evaluation system in place by next fall.

The guidelines and regulations for those systems are yet to be distributed, and state officials said they are continuing to develop and discuss what will be in them, including the possibility of student surveys.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf yesterday said that student input is an intriguing option among many for judging teacher effectiveness, but said it is too early to tell how important it might be.

“I am intrigued by recent research indicating that they may be valid as one element of an approach that incorporates multiple indicators,” he wrote in an email. “At the same time, I share the concerns of some educators about student surveys, so would not want to take any steps in that direction without soliciting their views and perspective.”

And there are plenty of views and perspectives.

The chief lobbyist for the state’s principals association said the survey information is valuable for a teacher’s own growth, but should not be included in actual ratings.

“Such survey results should be used by the teacher or principal as formative data to be used by the administrator to inform and improve their practice, not as part of the calculation of their rating,” said Debra Bradley, government relations director for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

In Alexandria, Pawlowski said that it has been “eye-popping” in some ways for teachers to hear directly from their students. The surveys are given as early as kindergarten, where the questions are simple and the answers come with a sad or smiley face.

But as the students get older, they are asked questions like whether they think all their classmates are treated fairly or that they are challenged on a daily basis.

None of the actual surveys are shared with administrators, Pawlowski said. They’re used by the teachers to reflect on and improve their own work.

“If 70 percent of the students say that not every kid is treated fairly, that is certainly something to reflect upon,” he said.

It’s not always an easy adjustment for teachers, Pawlowski added.

“It can build anxiety and concern as to how it will be used,” he said. “But once we have gotten into it, I think they’ve appreciated the feedback and even made some real changes.”