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These Days, Kids Get To Grade The Teachers

Teachers regularly evaluate their students.

Now, the tables are turned. Students evaluate their teachers.

Last year was the first in which students throughout North Carolina completed official evaluation forms of their teachers. In fact, evaluations by students in high school, middle school and even elementary school have picked up steam across the country.

The concept is the brainchild of a Harvard professor named Ron Ferguson. In this report, WFAE’s Lisa Miller talks to him about how the surveys work.

Teachers get evaluated.  But it’s usually done by administrators who observe a class or two a year.  They make notes, while the real experts sit at the desks around them.  Those students are the ones that experience the classroom 180 days a year. 

About ten years ago, Ron Ferguson had the idea of asking these kids about how their classes function.  His training is in economics and he’s now an education and public policy professor at Harvard.

A few years ago, he began putting his theory to the test and now student surveys have become part of a movement to gauge how well teachers teach.  Last year, kids in several districts across the country, including CMS, took them for the first time. 

FERGUSON: Before we started these kinds of surveys, for 3 or 4 years I’d been doing whole school climate surveys in which we were asking students about their experience in school, but not necessarily in individual classrooms.  And the patterns in the students’ responses were very systematic and that gave me confidence that students do take these things seriously.  They actually enjoy answering these kinds of surveys because we’re asking them things we don’t usually ask them and they kind of get a kick out of it. 

MILLER: Of course, there’s the concern that kids will blow it off or, worse, they won’t be fair to them?

FERGUSON:  Yeah, but the survey isn’t asking do you like your teacher.  The survey is asking does the class stay busy, or does the teacher really want you to understand things and not just memorize it, or does the teacher make things interesting, or does the teacher talk to the class or does the teacher summarize things at the end of the class.  It’s just descriptive statements where if you went statement by statement and you were trying to figure out, “Okay, which answer would I give if I don’t like my teacher.”  It’s just too much work for the kid who’s answering it.  And even if there’s one student who does totally mess it up, it’s only one student.  We’re not asking that anybody make a decision or reach a judgment based on one or two kids perspectives.  We’re really talking about larger numbers of students and averaging them together. 

MILLER: Colleges survey students about their professors all the time, so why is this so new to elementary, middle and high schools?

FERGUSON: I think people haven’t thought that the students could give accurate readings.  We don’t respect our kids well enough to think that they know, but as we say sometimes say now, “The students know. They are there.”  Obviously, there are ways that you can get this wrong.  This is not just about writing a bunch of questions off the top of your head and giving them to students and asking them to judge their teachers.  So the concepts that were trying to get at are concepts that have been validated through other people’s research as being systematically part of the mix of what good teaching and good learning environments entail. And the things we’re measuring are things that we can work on.  They’re things where through professional development efforts teachers can improve their skill in ways that improve the classroom experience and result in more learning.

MILLER: So what can teachers take away from this? If you’re a teacher, don’t you kind of know your weak points?

FERGUSON: Actually, you don’t.  We have a teacher survey where we actually ask teachers to rate themselves in these same dimensions that we ask the students to rate them on.  And teachers pretty consistently rate themselves higher than the students do.  Most of us don’t know what we don’t know.  Most teachers don’t watch other teachers teach very often and don’t have other people watch them teach and have conversations about it.  So folks are doing the best they know how to do, but there are a lot of things they never thought to do that they don’t know they never thought to do.  And so it’s a matter of starting to build much more active professional learning communities where teachers watch teaching and talk about teaching and try things a bit differently in their classroom and get feedback both from their colleagues and from their students.

MILLER: You’re a college professor.  You get student surveys about you.  What’s it like to read them?

FERGUSON: It’s a bit scary.  When the email comes, you kind of brace yourself and you decide, “Is this a moment when I’ve got the time emotionally to absorb it, if I’m about to see something that I don’t totally like.”   

And that happens.  Often, Ferguson says, his students make good points and he adjusts his teaching accordingly. After all, he says, it doesn’t matter what students think about their teachers, unless teachers use that information to improve.  

NOTE: Last year, 20,000 CMS students filled out the surveys.  The results were released last month.  Teachers in the district scored highest in making classes challenging and explaining material.  They rated lowest in classroom management.