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Do Student Surveys Have a Role in Evaluating Teachers?

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

There’s a saying: When you have a hammer, everything suddenly becomes a nail. It is not surprising that student surveys, as a tool analogous to the hammer, are suddenly viewed through the lens of usefulness when applied to teacher evaluations.

Student surveys provide valuable feedback for teachers that contribute to professional development and can result in improved classroom practices. Over the years, the classroom-level cycle of feedback and adjustment can produce improved student performance results. It already happens in some places; imagine the possible impact if such a process were adopted system-wide. But when it comes to teacher evaluations, implementation is – as always - fraught with unforeseen consequences. The errors of the policy-making community, when in a rush, are plentiful, and in this instance, threaten to undermine the already established usefulness of student feedback when it comes to developing highly effective teachers.

At a recent Center for American Progress event, “Student Voice in Improving Teacher Practice and Student Engagement,” featuring the Tripod Survey Assessments, Rob Ramsdell of Cambridge Education spoke to the value of student surveys in changing teaching practice. The Tripod Project is the product of collaboration between its founder Ron Ferguson of Harvard University and Cambridge Education. The surveys are one of the tools featured in the Gates Foundation Measuring Effective Teaching (MET) study of teaching quality.

These surveys focus on what teachers can do to improve and increase student engagement and their ability to learn in the classroom. Students of all ages are surveyed, usually in twenty minutes, with different age ranges receiving different questions. These questions aim to assess a teacher’s performance on the seven Cs:

  • Caring about students
  • Captivating students
  • Conferring with students
  • Controlling and managing classroom dynamics and behavior
  • Clarifying lessons
  • Challenging students
  • Consolidating knowledge

Questions are simply phrased, answerable with either numeric rating or yes or no. Because students answer individually, a teacher can see how the classroom views his or her performance on average in each of these areas. Student engagement is assessed, and performance considered to be positively affected, by various classroom dynamics: the level of trust a student has in his or her teacher, how inclined a student is to cooperate, their level of ambitiousness and diligence and their satisfaction and efficacy – all of which are connected to the classroom atmosphere.

Mr. Ramsdell was joined by Tiffany Francis, a teacher from Pittsburgh who shared her Tripod results with the audience. She admitted to being skeptical at first, but through a closer examination of the results, she now appreciates the value. For example, her scores in ‘care’ were the highest they could be, whereas she learned she needed to work more at consolidating knowledge for her students. The key to the student assessments is that the process develops a closer feedback mechanism in classrooms, allowing a teacher to respond to the needs of their students. Teachers can also take pride in positive feedback, because they know the students are providing their perspective as observers and learners. If students feel challenged, cared for and respected, then a teacher is doing something or several things right. There is no punitive action associated with these responses, and teachers are encouraged to self-reflect on the results and alter their practice accordingly.If our collective goal is to increase student achievement, then students can help us understand how they learn and what makes a good teacher. But there are a great deal of unanswered questions when it comes to using student feedback more formally in teacher evaluations, rather than as a classroom-level enterprise. How should they be administered and by whom? How much should they count for in the evaluation? If a teacher knows they are being used in performance evaluations, how will that punitive possibility affect the dynamic between teacher and students?  

If done in haste, using student surveys in evaluations poses a tremendous risk of undermining the already invaluable service they provide to teachers and their self-improvement. There is the potential to once again misuse a tool in the pursuit of data and accountability. Not every useful tool must be put to the same task. There is an opportunity to examine this option, but proceeding with caution is the name of the game. In the meantime, learning is a two-way street; it’s time for us to embrace the value of student voices and ensure their feedback is put to use where we can already see a positive effect.