Giving students a role in evaluating their teachers gives rise to fears. Some teachers and educational policy makers think that students aren’t mature enough to be trusted with such an important responsibility. They worry about fairness to teachers and believe students will reserve their best judgements for those teachers who give out the highest grades.
Dr. Gregory Prince begs to differ. Until recently, Dr. Prince was President of Hampshire College, in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Co-Chair of the Council on Ethnic and Racial Justice of the American Bar Association. He retired three years ago, and since then, works for a foundation which seeks to create opportunities in colleges and universities for poor students. One of the ways that is done is through an academic summer camp which prepares participants for success in college admissions and subsequent academic performance. To staff the summer camp, Dr. Prince hires teachers from the same inner-city schools that campers attend during the school year in cities like Newark, Camden, and Baltimore. The selection process for hiring teachers is simple. Ask the kids. “They know who the good teachers are!” said Prince.
As if this were a revolutionary idea: students know the quality teachers, and will tell the truth when asked. The National Institute for Educational Evaluation, INEE, includes opinions from “focus groups” of students as one factor to consider in the evaluation of Mexican teachers. However, student opinions should be collected by means of a survey rather than in focus groups. The social pressures on students ensure that in a public setting the more outgoing and articulate will dominate the discussion and their opinions will influence those of less assertive students.
The ideal student opinion survey for the purpose of teacher evaluation should have few items and be easy to administer and tabulate. It should concentrate on in-class teacher behaviors rather than value judgments on intangibles. The Tripod Study (http://tinyurl.com/ogg6voc) found that a survey with five to seven items could indicate consistently and with high degrees of reliability and validity, which teachers were the best at fostering student learning. And the opinions collected were verifiable with objective tests of academic performance. Students indicated whether they agreed with statements such as:
- The teacher motivates me to give my best effort.
- The teacher keeps me interested. I don’t get bored.
- Our class stays busy and we don’t waste time.
- The teacher in this class gives us enough time to explain our ideas.
- When I am confused, the teacher in this class knows how to help me understand.
- Our teacher wants us to think, not just memorize things.
- Our teacher takes the time to summarize what we learn every day.
If students agree with these seven statements, you can be sure they have a quality teacher. Simple, right? Ask the kids! An added benefit is that these seven statements provide teachers with a fair and brief description of best classroom practices. Of course it’s not the only evidence that must be considered, but within a multifaceted teacher evaluation process, it’s helpful to include student opinions. Educating students means guiding them to discover and hone their authentic voices. This is only possible if we trust the content of their expression.