Nubia Baptiste had spent some 665 days at her Washington, D.C., public school by the time she walked into second period on March 27, 2012. She was an authority on McKinley Technology High School. She knew which security guards to befriend and where to hide out to skip class (try the bleachers). She knew which teachers stayed late to write college recommendation letters for students; she knew which ones patrolled the halls like guards in a prison yard, barking at kids to disperse.
If someone had asked, she could have revealed things about her school that no adult could have known. Once Nubia got talking, she had plenty to say. But until that morning of her senior spring, no one had ever asked.
She sat down at her desk and pulled her long, neat dreadlocks behind her shoulders. Then her teacher passed out a form. Must be another standardized test, Nubia figured, to be finished and forgotten. She picked up her pencil. By senior year, it was a reflex. The only sound was the hum of the air conditioning.
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Well, this was different. She chose an answer from a list: Sometimes.
This class feels like a happy family.
She arched an eyebrow. Was this a joke? Totally untrue.
In towns around the country this past school year, a quarter-million students took a special survey designed to capture what they thought of their teachers and their classroom culture. Unlike the vast majority of surveys in human history, this one had been carefully field-tested. That research had shown something remarkable: if you asked kids the right questions, they could identify, with uncanny accuracy, their most—and least—effective teachers.
The point was so obvious, it was almost embarrassing. Kids stared at their teachers for hundreds of hours a year, which might explain their expertise. Their survey answers, it turned out, were more reliable than any other known measure of teacher performance—including classroom observations and student test-score growth. All of which raised an uncomfortable new question: Should teachers be paid, trained, or dismissed based in part on what children say about them?
To find out, school officials in a handful of cities have been quietly trying out the survey. In D.C. this year, six schools participated in a pilot project, and The Atlantic was granted access to observe the four-month process from beginning to end.
At McKinley, a magnet school for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, Nubia Baptiste filled in bubbles in response to all 127 questions. Then she slipped the survey into the envelope provided and sealed it.
Afterward, in the hallway, she tried to understand what had just happened. It didn’t fit with her previous experience. “No one asks about the adults,” she said. “It’s always the student.”
A classmate standing next to her shook her head. “They should’ve done this since I was in the eighth grade.”
For the past decade, education reformers worldwide have been obsessed with teaching quality. Study after study has shown that it matters more than anything else in a school—and that it is too low in too many places. For all kids to learn 21st-century skills, teaching has to get better—somehow.
In the United States, the strategy has been for school officials to start evaluating teacher performance more frequently and more seriously than in the past, when their reviews were almost invariably positive. The hope was that a teacher would improve through a combination of pressure and feedback—or get replaced by someone better. By the beginning of this year, almost half the states required teacher reviews to be based in part on test-score data.
So far, this revolution has been loud but unsatisfying. Most teachers do not consider test-score data a fair measure of what students have learned. Complex algorithms that adjust for students’ income and race have made test-score assessments more fair—but are widely resented, contested, or misunderstood by teachers.
Meanwhile, the whole debate remains moot in most classrooms. Despite all the testing in American schools, most teachers still do not teach the subjects or grade levels covered by mandatory standardized tests. So no test-score data exists upon which they can be judged. As a result, they still get evaluated by their principals, who visit their classrooms every so often and judge their work just as principals have always done—without much accuracy, detail, or candor. Even in Washington, D.C., which has been more aggressive than any other city in using test-score data to reward and fire teachers, such data have been collected for only 15 out of every 100 teachers. The proportion is increasing in D.C. Public Schools and other districts as schools pile on more tests, but for now, only a minority of teachers can be evaluated this way.
But even if testing data existed for everyone, how informative would they really be? Test scores can reveal when kids are not learning; they can’t reveal why. They might make teachers relax or despair—but they can’t help teachers improve. The surveys focus on the means, not the ends—giving teachers tangible ideas about what they can fix right now, straight from the minds of the people who sit in front of them all day long.
A decade ago, a Harvard economist named Ronald Ferguson went to Ohio to help a small school district figure out why black kids did worse on tests than white kids. He did all kinds of things to analyze the schoolchildren in Shaker Heights, a Cleveland suburb. Maybe because he’d grown up in the area, or maybe because he is African American himself, he suspected that important forces were at work in the classroom that teachers could not see.
So eventually Ferguson gave the kids in Shaker Heights a survey—not about their entire school, but about their specific classrooms. The results were counterintuitive. The same group of kids answered differently from one classroom to the next, but the differences didn’t have as much to do with race as he’d expected; in fact, black students and white students largely agreed.
The variance had to do with the teachers. In one classroom, kids said they worked hard, paid attention, and corrected their mistakes; they liked being there, and they believed that the teacher cared about them. In the next classroom, the very same kids reported that the teacher had trouble explaining things and didn’t notice when students failed to understand a lesson.
“We knew the relationships that teachers build with students were important,” says Mark Freeman, superintendent of the Shaker Heights City School District. “But seeing proof of it in the survey results made a big difference. We found the results to be exceptionally helpful.”
Back at Harvard, no one took much notice of Ferguson’s survey. “When I would try to talk about it to my researcher colleagues, they were not interested,” he says, laughing. “People would just change the subject.”
Then, in 2009, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched a massive project to study 3,000 teachers in seven cities and learn what made them effective—or ineffective. Thomas Kane, a colleague of Ferguson’s, led the sprawling study, called the “Measures of Effective Teaching” project. He and his fellow researchers set up many elaborate instruments to gauge effectiveness, including statistical regressions that tracked changes in students’ test scores over time and panoramic video cameras that captured thousands of hours of classroom activity.
But Kane also wanted to include student perceptions. So he thought of Ferguson’s survey, which he’d heard about at Harvard. With Ferguson’s help, Kane and his colleagues gave an abbreviated version of the survey to the tens of thousands of students in the research study—and compared the results with test scores and other measures of effectiveness. The responses did indeed help predict which classes would have the most test-score improvement at the end of the year. In math, for example, the teachers rated most highly by students delivered the equivalent of about six more months of learning than teachers with the lowest ratings. (By comparison, teachers who get a master’s degree—one of the few ways to earn a pay raise in most schools —delivered about one more month of learning per year than teachers without one.)