My first year teaching, I gave periodic, anonymous “pulse check” surveys to my 8th grade classes, asking about their math confidence, what they thought of me as a teacher, and how I could help them learn better. The results: brutal honesty. It was great to read about students recognizing my effort at planning engaging lessons, and my belief in their capabilities, but give a 13 year-old a pencil and paper, and they will expose every inconsistency and shortcoming in the way you run your classroom.
While it stung to have the mirror held up to my spotty classroom management, scaffolding, and other teaching skills, it ultimately helped me to become a better teacher in a way no amount of peer coaching, administrator evaluation, or data-based reflection ever could. Rather than think about state proficiency levels and quantifying mastery, I planned my lessons for the student with arithmetic issues that stared blankly while I explained linear equations. Instead of thinking about the perfect classroom management ‘system,’ I thought about who was succeeding and suffering in my classes, who felt persecuted, and how to build community within my class.
What happens when you take a survey like this and apply it on a larger scale?
Amanda Ripley for the Atlantic:
A decade ago, a Harvard economist named Ronald Ferguson went to Ohio to help a small school district figure out why black kids did worse on tests than white kids. He did all kinds of things to analyze the schoolchildren in Shaker Heights, a Cleveland suburb. Maybe because he’d grown up in the area, or maybe because he is African American himself, he suspected that important forces were at work in the classroom that teachers could not see.
So eventually Ferguson gave the kids in Shaker Heights a survey—not about their entire school, but about their specific classrooms. The results were counterintuitive. The same group of kids answered differently from one classroom to the next, but the differences didn’t have as much to do with race as he’d expected; in fact, black students and white students largely agreed.
The variance had to do with the teachers. In one classroom, kids said they worked hard, paid attention, and corrected their mistakes; they liked being there, and they believed that the teacher cared about them. In the next classroom, the very same kids reported that the teacher had trouble explaining things and didn’t notice when students failed to understand a lesson.
Students were better than trained adult observers at evaluating teachers. This wasn’t because they were smarter but because they had months to form an opinion, as opposed to 30 minutes. And there were dozens of them, as opposed to a single principal. Even if one kid had a grudge against a teacher or just blew off the survey, his response alone couldn’t sway the average.
Teachers can fake good teaching for evaluations, and fake caring about their students at parent conferences and back to school night. Faking test scores is a little harder, but you can drill practice tests, focus your whole curriculum on the numbers, and know that you’ll probably do okay.
Nothing gets by the kids, though. They will call you out on all your shortcomings– not because they don’t like you, but because somebody asked a question and they tend to answer honestly. Maybe it shouldn’t be the bulk of the evaluation, and a few safeguards against abuse wouldn’t hurt, but we owe it to ourselves and our children to give their opinions weight.
(More on this, including student opinions, at the New York Times)