American Schools October 2012

Why Kids Should Grade Teachers

A decade ago, an economist at Harvard, Ronald Ferguson, wondered what would happen if teachers were evaluated by the people who see them every day—their students. The idea—as simple as it sounds, and as familiar as it is on college campuses—was revolutionary. And the results seemed to be, too: remarkable consistency from grade to grade, and across racial divides. Even among kindergarten students. A growing number of school systems are administering the surveys—and might be able to overcome teacher resistance in order to link results to salaries and promotions.

In a kindergarten classroom a mile from the U.S. Capitol, Gerod, 5, is evaluating his teacher. He sits at a low table in a squat chair, his yellow school-­uniform shirt buttoned all the way up, and picks up a thick red pencil.

“The first question says This class is a happy place for me to be,” the teacher says. For very young children, Ferguson’s survey includes slightly different questions, which teachers from other classrooms read aloud to kids in small groups. Gerod’s usual teacher was in a neighboring classroom, so that she wouldn’t influence the results.

Teachers had thought it most important to care about kids, but what mattered more was having control over the classroom and making it a challenging place.

“My answer is No,” Gerod declares, smiling. His bright-white sneakers are swinging back and forth. The other four students in his group mark Yes. “This is pretty easy,” one of Gerod’s classmates announces.

Sometimes I get into trouble at school,” the teacher says.

“I say Yes,” Gerod says.

A teacher’s aide chastises him from a neighboring table: “You don’t have to discuss it,” she says in a loud, irritated voice. “Put an answer!” But none of the kids can seem to help themselves; after each question, they continue to announce their answers loudly and clearly.

Some kids learn things a lot faster than I do.”

Yes,” Gerod says, filling in his answer.

I like the things that we are learning in this class.”

Gerod is getting restless. “It’s time for lunch! Almost?”

It is hard to believe that Gerod’s survey would pass scientific scrutiny: a few of the statements are poorly worded for his age level, and the whole thing is far too long. But Ferguson insists that, statistically speaking, kinder­gartners’ judgments of teachers are quite reliable; in thousands of surveys, kids in the same kindergarten class have tended to agree with each other about their teachers.

Finally, after half an hour of this, the teacher reaches the demographic questions at the end of the survey: “Does your family speak English at home?

Never,” Gerod says with confidence.

“Are you sure, Gerod? English—the language we are speaking now.” He changes his answer to Yes.

“Race or ethnicity?”

White,” Gerod says, marking his answer. He is black.

Patricia Wilkins, Gerod’s kindergarten teacher at Tyler Elementary School, received her survey results about two months later. She’d been teaching at the school for more than a decade, and had seen a lot of reforms come and go. She’d worked for five different principals, she said, if you included the one who was led away in handcuffs.

But she was curious about the survey results. Unlike half the teachers in D.C.’s pilot project, she clicked on the link to see her students’ opinions. As she looked at the data in a small conference room during a planning period, she was quiet. Then she smiled. “I’m highest on Care. That’s what I felt, but I didn’t know that they felt it.”

Nine out of 10 of her students said they liked the way their teacher treated them when they needed help; that was high compared with the average response from kinder­gartners nationwide. Her students seemed to think she challenged them, too, which was reassuring. Still, only half said their classmates stayed busy and didn’t waste time. “This is very helpful,” she said, nodding.

Across town, at McKinley High School, Nubia Baptiste didn’t hear about the survey again that school year. That summer, her teacher, Lashunda Reynolds, read the survey results for her students and found them to be fair. “Overall, I think that the survey is a good reflection tool for teachers,” she said. Still, she worried that some students might be biased for or against her, and for that reason, she would not want the results to influence her formal evaluation.

Principals can be biased, too. So can tests, as Reynolds knows. But like many other teachers, she seemed fatigued by the years of one “reform” after another—and wary of any addition to the already long list of ways she would be judged.

Nathan Saunders, the head of D.C.’s teachers union, did not seem to know much about the survey when I spoke with him about it in June. But he insisted that the results should never be used for high-stakes evaluation: “This is seen by many members of our union as just another way to vilify teachers.”

Guillaume Gendre, one of Nubia Baptiste’s assistant principals, saw the survey results differently. “It’s very, very precious data for me,” he said. For this pilot, he was not able to see teachers’ names beside their results, to protect their anonymity; but he said he still found the information more useful than what standardized tests provided.

Overall, the teachers scored about average compared with their counterparts in high schools nationwide. But the variation within the school was staggering—as it is in many places. In the categories of Control and Challenge—the areas that matter most to student learning—Nubia and her classmates gave different teachers wildly different reviews. For Control, which reflects how busy and well-behaved students are in a given classroom, teachers’ scores ranged from 16 to 90 percent favorable; for Challenge, the range stretched from 18 to 88 percent. Some teachers were clearly respected for their ability to explain complex material or keep students on task, while others seemed to be boring their students to death.

If you ask kids the right questions, they can identify, with uncanny accuracy, their most—and least—effective teachers.

The results helped Gendre understand why eight in 10 students who took Advanced Placement tests at McKinley, a magnet school, didn’t pass. In response to one survey item—My teacher doesn’t let people give up when the work gets hard—­fewer than a third of McKinley’s students answered Totally agree. “This building needs to be more challenging academically, and students need to feel more valued and appreciated,” Gendre concluded, staring at a printout of the results in his office during the last week of school.

This school year, Washington, D.C., will make the survey available to all principals and teachers who want to use it. Chancellor Kaya Henderson says that next year, the survey may count toward teacher pay and firing decisions. But for now, she wants to proceed with caution, after years of turbulent changes in D.C. schools. “You gotta do it right,” she says. “Otherwise, it will torpedo our chances of doing it again.”

The shorter version of the survey, used in the Gates study, is available for public use, and it would cost less than $5 per student to implement. That is a remarkable bargain. D.C.’s standardized tests and the detailed analysis of the results cost more than $35 per pupil tested; employing professionals to watch classes and give teachers feedback multiple times a year costs about $97 per student.

But most districts are far too invested in test-score analysis to turn back now. The ones who do adopt student surveys will almost certainly add them to test data and classroom observations, to create a more balanced (and still more complicated) measure of teacher performance.

When I called Nubia Baptiste over the summer with the survey results, she was not surprised. “Everybody knows the good teachers from the ones who don’t really want to be in the job,” she said. When I started describing the huge variation between teachers, she interrupted me. “I lived the dynamic,” she said.

Nubia was on her way to Temple University, where she was considering studying science or engineering. Having personally witnessed many of the recent reforms in D.C., she was wise to what mattered most.

“I don’t care about the results,” she said. “I care about the change the results bring. If I come back in five years and some crappy teacher is still sitting at that crappy desk, then what was the point of the survey?”

Presented by

Amanda Ripley, an Emerson Fellow at the New America Foundation, is writing a book about education around the world.

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