This article from the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/04/technology/students-grade-teachers-and-a-start-up-harnesses-the-data.html?_r=1) gives some background on one of the latest wrinkles in teacher evaluation techniques that may be catching on. A tech startup named Panorama Education is trying to improve the feedback teachers get by creating and administering student surveys. They’ve also lowered the costs by using a technology that doesn’t require special sheets for multiple choice answers to be read by computers. The story offers little in the way of proof that these surveys will improve teacher skills, although a single teacher is cited as benefitting from the additional feedback.
Now, we had student surveys for much of my thirty-three-year teaching career, and they were of questionable value, to say the least. The questions weren’t very useful, the motivation of the students couldn’t be vouchsafed, and there was little reason to pay much attention to them from a teacher’s perspective. Administrative evaluations—typically based on a couple of formal observations—were the main teacher improvement vehicle, and they weren’t of much use either. With standardized testing becoming the new terrible instrument for rating teachers, student surveys conceivably could offer a better alternative, but none of these systems offers a particularly good way for teachers to learn how to teach more effectively.
The subjective nature of student/teacher relationships as they impact student learning cannot be objectively measured, no matter how much technical wizards claim they can. Metrics just don’t offer the same insight on human relationships that they do on something as statistical as baseball. “Yeah, his chalk work on Tuesdays after Monday holidays in natural light was significantly sharper than with fluorescent lights, as long as the class was in an even-numbered room, of course.”
Self-reflection, interaction with colleagues, and observing others teach are the best methods to help teachers improve; but rarely do those come up in teacher evaluation discussions. Student surveys do have a place in the reflection aspect of a teacher’s self-assessment, and they are definitely better than relying on standardized tests. But they always will be wildly variable and not very reliable, especially in determining a teacher’s employment future. If we have to make use of surveys, we should also include other teachers in that mix, as well as some parents. For teacher evaluation instruments to be useful, though, we need to create a more positive culture, one that emphasizes teacher strengths as much as weaknesses and recognizes skills and efforts, rather than simply attacking based on test scores or judgments based on a couple of observations.