Let Students Evaluate Teachers?

That is the contention of a recent piece in the Village Voice. It seems like a fair suggestion for Governor Andy, who claims to be a lobbyist for students. Of course, students cannot pour billions of dollars into his campaign coffers like Rupert Murdoch can, so there is little chance that he will take this proposal seriously.

As teachers, we are likely to reject such a harebrained scheme out of hand. But there might be something to be said for students having some say in teacher evaluations.

I was a dean for several years. As such, I always heard student critiques of their teachers. The vast majority of these critiques would be negative, mostly because these were the most disengaged students from school. That means that those rare occasions on which these students said something positive about a teacher’s teaching were that more meaningful. There would be two types of positive feedback. The first, easily disregarded, was complimenting Ms. Smith because she was a pushover. “Oh, but she allows us to eat in class and have parties every day, she is mad cool.” Of course, I considered this more of an insult to Ms. Smith than anything else. The other type of compliment, which one could usually bank on, would be that Ms. Johnson was strict but a good teacher. Usually, they would say something like “But you actually learn in Ms. Johnson’s class.” I always considered this the highest praise a teacher can get.

Usually, the critiques of the most disengaged students had grains of truth in it, even if the rest of their opinions were delusional. Students have a sense of when their teachers work hard or care for them or know their subject. That is why I think student feedback should count for no more than 15% of teacher evaluations.

But, would not students rate teachers based upon personal animus? If Ms. Johnson fails or disciplines a student, does she not put herself at risk of being a victim of sour grapes? Furthermore, do students not already have an inordinate amount of power over the lives of their teachers as it is? Cannot one false accusation of a jaded student ruin the career of an excellent teacher?

I believe these arguments destroy the proposition of the Village Voice. Students already wield too much power over teachers and they know it. Student evaluations would only mean something if teachers are protected against frivolous accusations. That would include no automatic removal of teachers from the classroom, having the right to know the charges against you, being able to face your accuser and an entitlement to a fair, independent investigation. Until these things happen, which is unlikely, the idea of student evaluations has to stay on the shelf.

More importantly, the other 85% of teacher evaluations should come from colleagues and administrators. Teachers should be able to rate their colleagues based upon how collaborative they are with the rest of the staff and how hard they work at perfecting their craft. Administrators should be able to rate teachers based upon how rigorous they are in the classroom and how they do at classroom management. Of course, this would mean that administrators should be able to recognize good teaching and content mastery when they see it. This requires the further step of setting the bar way higher to becoming an administrator. Today, all one needs to be an administrator in NYC is three years in the classroom and a dime store administrator’s degree. It should be increased to 10 years in the classroom, while administrator programs should be more academically rigorous and require future administrators to recognize good teaching. Because of the proliferation of small schools under Bloomberg, there has been a mad rush to pump out administrators and that has meant a huge devaluation of what it takes call oneself principal or assistant principal. As it is now, the barrier of entry into administration is so low, and the stories of petty or incompetent administrators so pervasive, that even the best principals in the city are cheapened.

In short, the Village Voice proposal sounds nice, but it misses the point. Only until both teaching and school administration are held in higher regard by the powers that be can the profession be secure enough to allow student evaluations.

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2 responses to “Let Students Evaluate Teachers?

  1. Excellent perspective, and to your point about students already wielding a great amount of power… consider the recent trend of YouTube posts featuring frustrated teachers finally pushed over the edge of reason.
    Last year’s YT clip of a teacher here in Nashville is a good example. Naturally, the video picks up right as the teacher begins to flip out. He begins screaming at his students to “shut up” before finally flipping over a desk & storming out of the classroom.
    The teacher was disciplined. Yes, his behavior was unacceptable… but what actually drove him to his breakdown? Students came to his defense and painted a picture of complete chaos in regards to what this particular teacher was forced to deal with on a daily basis. The teacher told of being completely undermined by the higher-ups in his attempts to discipline his more disruptive students – the very students who prodded him to his breaking point & then kindly recorded his moment of rage.
    This is just one example, but my point is this… In a situation such as this, where admins are content to allow students to negate any form of learning, it would be outrageous to allow them any say in regards to the performance of the people unfortunate enough to have to “teach” them.
    Just my

    • Yeah, you’re absolutely right. A few months ago there was that YT video where a teacher called his student “special” and then threatened (sort of) to beat him up. Everyone was celebrating this kid for standing up to this “bully” teacher. They never showed showed what led up to any of these things. It sucks and it makes teachers fear being anything more than vacuous ninnies.

      Like professors, teachers need the type of independence to make student evaluations count for something.

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