Should Students Get to Evaluate Teachers? I Think So
The debate about evaluating teachers is heating up. It isn’t heating up in any kind of real discussion by those who want to become president—they’d rather focus on whether or not to build an oil pipeline through one of our largest water supplies to create an estimated 200 jobs. But for people who follow education, which is almost no one, the value-added debate is picking up steam, and has been for awhile now.
I have written about teacher evaluations before, basically claiming that even though it’s not being done right, if it means more money for teachers, then I can’t say no. But I want to focus on another aspect of the evaluation discussion that I think is important when looking forward—namely: Should we look at Student Evaluations of teachers when assessing an instructor’s performance?
I say yes.
Actually, I say yes very quickly and with complete conviction. I am convinced that students know good teaching when they see it. Time and again, when I hear about a teacher on campus (mostly from the students), they are surprisingly perceptive when judging teachers. Some of them raise their hands for help and need me to come turn their exam over to show them the back side has questions on it also, but when it comes to teachers, they don’t seem to miss much.
I know some teachers are good. I’ve been in their classrooms, I hear them in meetings, and I hear what the students say. It is unanimous. Students like good teachers, and are surprisingly willing to admit they are doing a good job. They will even admit that about a teacher they don’t necessarily like that much. They might say, “Ms. So-and-so is hard, I don’t like her.” But when pressed, they will admit, “But she is a good teacher.”
When I teach at UC Berkeley over the summer, our students evaluate us every year. I think it is good practice that reminds us who we serve. A few weeks ago Tom Brady’s offensive coordinator yelled at him, and Bill Cohwer found it funny because as a coach, he said, “make no mistake, when you yell at Tom Brady, you are yelling at your boss.” I think that is how we need to look at our students. We are there to serve them. If education were a business, they would be the clients. We, on the other hand, are the business trying to please them.
Of course it isn’t that easy. Many students absolutely adore the teachers that show “Superbad” three days a week. Yes, that is a real example from my school. No, we cannot get rid of this person because they have tenure. So with student evaluations we run the risk of rewarding the bad teachers who the students love because they make them do nothing while punishing the hard teachers who dish out rigor.
But there are ways around these problems. I think some businesses have their own strategies for dealing with this. You can throw out the best five and worst five evaluations to find the right sampling. Yet even at face value, I think the evaluations speak more truth than many are willing to believe. I’m even thinking of my GHETTO students, you know, the ones in all caps bold italic. Even when I talk to them they are fully willing to admit a teacher is good, and they are also willing to admit they like teachers who deserve their respect. Yes, some kids will be pissed off you took their cell phone last week and give you all zeros, but I truly do believe student evaluations should be part of a teacher’s assessment.
Notice I said part.
As I’ve said before, teacher evaluations are far from perfected, and rarely done right. I just looked over previous data from my classes in our district database that showed 3-4 classes where my Negative Growth was 20% of the class. That looks pretty damn big on a bar graph. Well, when I check to see which students caused my numbers to look so bad sure enough they are kids I had for less than a month, kids who missed 60 days of school, kids that had 80 tardies, or even kids who were expelled.
We need to change a lot of things about evaluations as they stand now. We need value-added scores that discount kids who only showed up for half the year. We need evaluations from other teachers WHO HAVE TAUGHT THE SAME GRADE LEVEL. If I have another elementary school teacher who still has all of their hair come into my room and suggest I give someone a hug I might choke a fool.
And we could also use student evaluations.
It all comes down to this: I am not afraid of the job I am doing. I am teaching one of the most difficult classes at my school. It is the kind of class some teachers refuse to teach. It is the kind of class others would be afraid of being evaluated for teaching. But I’ll say it again: I am not afraid of the job I am doing, and I am not afraid of what my students think about the job I’m doing.
If public education serves students, shouldn’t they have a say in how it’s going?
Matt Amaral is a writer and high school English teacher from the San Francisco Bay Area. He blogs at Teach4Real.com.