Student Voice in Evaluation

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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. But when it comes to teacher evaluations, implementation is – as always - fraught with unforeseen consequences.

The Tripod Project is the product of collaboration between its founder Ron Ferguson of Harvard University and Cambridge Education. The survey assessments 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 aimed at assessing 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. The key to the student assessments is that the process develops a closer feedback mechanism in classrooms, allowing teachers to respond to the needs of their students. 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.

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? There is the potential to once again misuse a tool in the pursuit of data and accountability and while there is an opportunity to examine this option, 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.

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