Monday, September 24, 2012

Education: Asking Children to Evaluate Their Teachers

Everyone seems to agree that providing children with good teachers is an important component of providing a good education. The problem arises when it is necessary to determine which teachers are the best. The teachers feel that they are the ones who can make that subjective judgment; others feel that student performance is the best guide to teacher performance. Student performance has been interpreted as scores on standardized tests. Everyone seems to have agreed that test scores tell as much about the students as about the teacher and are not on their own definitive. A compromise generally appears to be agreeable to both sides: test scores will be a part of a teacher’s evaluation, perhaps a third, with two thirds coming from peer review and other subjective observations, perhaps by an administrator or by an outside party. 

Amanda Ripley has provided a thought-provoking article in The Atlantic suggesting that there is a much more reliable way to evaluate teachers than any of the above approaches: Why Kids Should Grade Teachers.

Ripley tells us of a Harvard economist named Ronald Ferguson who went to a school system in Ohio to study why black kids did not perform as well as white kids on tests. One of his concerns was that subtle influences were at work that might not be apparent to the outside observer. As part of his effort he assembled a questionnaire to give to students asking them to comment on 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."

The children appeared to have arrived at a definite and accurate description of their teachers’ performances. The administrators at the Ohio school district considered the results of the survey helpful and Ferguson returned to Harvard and other activities.

"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."

Among all the other measurements and observations to be included in the study, Kane wanted to include student perceptions. He had heard of Ferguson’s surveys and invited him to participate.

"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 student surveys turned out to be very useful.

"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.)"

The conclusion was reached that the children were more effective than a trained adult at evaluating a teacher.

"This wasn’t because they were smarter but because they had months to form an opinion, as opposed to 30 minutes. And there were dozens of them, as opposed to a single principal."

It was also concluded that the student surveys were more reliable than student test scores in teacher evaluations. The latter can vary considerably from term to term depending on the mix of students the teacher faced.

"Survey results don’t change depending on race or income—not the case with test data, which can rise depending on how white and affluent a school is."

"Student surveys, on the other hand, are far less volatile. Kids’ answers for a given teacher remained similar, Ferguson found, from class to class and from fall to spring. And more important, the questions led to revelations that test scores did not: Above and beyond academic skills, what was it really like to spend a year in this classroom? Did you work harder in this classroom than you did anywhere else? The answers to these questions matter to a student for years to come...."

The use of the surveys allowed the researchers to determine what was most critical in a learning environment. The five elements identified were:

1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.
2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.
3. Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.
4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.
5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.

"When Ferguson and Kane shared these five statements at conferences, teachers were surprised. They had typically thought it most important to care about kids, but what mattered more, according to the study, was whether teachers had control over the classroom and made it a challenging place to be."

The Gates project provided validation of the efficacy of the surveys.

"Suddenly, dozens of school districts wanted to try out the survey....partly because of federal incentives to evaluate teachers more rigorously, using multiple metrics. This past school year, Memphis became the first school system in the country to tie survey results to teachers’ annual reviews; surveys counted for 5 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. And that proportion may go up in the future."

"The New Teacher Project, a national nonprofit based in Brooklyn that recruits and trains new teachers, last school year used student surveys to evaluate 460 of its 1,006 teachers. ‘The advent of student feedback in teacher evaluations is among the most significant developments for education reform in the last decade,’ says Timothy Daly, the organization’s president and a former teacher."

Not surprisingly, teachers are hesitant to endure another new approach to evaluating (criticizing) their performance.

"In Pittsburgh, all students took the survey last school year. The teachers union objects to any attempt to use the results in performance reviews, but education officials may do so anyway in the not-too-distant future. In Georgia, principals will consider student survey responses when they evaluate teachers this school year. In Chicago, starting in the fall of 2013, student survey results will count for 10 percent of a teacher’s evaluation."

Ripley suggests that caution is yet required. As promising as these surveys have been, there is no guarantee that they will continue to be as productive as their usage is scaled up and applied by different school systems in different environments. There is the danger that they will be used explicitly as a tool to winnow out less effective teachers, rather than as a tool to help teachers become more effective. That is a valid concern on the part of the teachers and their representatives. One expects that it will be years of back and forth before teachers and administrators come to terms with this approach, but it does provide hope for a more effective path forward.

Teachers at upper levels of education have often commented on how much they learn from the feedback they receive in trying to teach a subject to students. It appears the same conclusion applies even with the littlest of children.

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