Students Evaluating Teachers

Should K-12 student surveys of their teachers be used to determine whether they get a boost in salary or be judged effective or ineffective?


The emerging answer, according to Amanda Ripley’s recent article, is yes. Based on surveys given to students about their teachers over the past decade, student judgments about their teachers are highly correlated with test scores. In particular, researchers have found these questions on a 36-item survey to bear the highest association with test scores. (see preliminary-findings-research-paper-1, pp. 11-16)

1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.

2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.

3. Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.

4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.

5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.

These questions measure classroom control and the degree to which teachers challenge students to work harder with academic content and skills.

According to Ripley:

Memphis became the first school system in the country to tie survey results to teachers’ annual reviews; surveys counted for 5 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. And that proportion may go up in the future. (Another 35 percent of the evaluation was tied to how much students’ test scores rose or fell, and 40 percent to classroom observations.) At the end of the year, some Memphis teachers were dismissed for low evaluation scores—but less than 2 percent of the faculty.

The New Teacher Project, a national nonprofit based in Brooklyn that recruits and trains new teachers, last school year used student surveys to evaluate 460 of its 1,006 teachers. “The advent of student feedback in teacher evaluations is among the most significant developments for education reform in the last decade,” says Timothy Daly, the organization’s president and a former teacher.

In Pittsburgh, all students took the survey last school year. The teachers union objects to any attempt to use the results in performance reviews, but education officials may do so anyway in the not-too-distant future. In Georgia, principals will consider student survey responses when they evaluate teachers this school year. In Chicago, starting in the fall of 2013, student survey results will count for 10 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

Of course, the cat is way out of the bag now. Once high stakes (e.g., salary, getting fired) are attached to a metric–student perceptions of teacher performance–then count on that measure being resented by teachers and then gamed. If the hope was that a useful tool such as student evaluations of teaching could be used to improve classroom practice, forget it. As one journalist put it:

I don’t doubt that student surveys could, in theory, be very useful in the large task facing administrators and teachers — how to make schools better and improve the quality of the education they provide. They would show where schools were weak and where they were strong; which teachers have managed to crack certain nuts where the rest of the faculty is having difficulty; that kind of thing. In short, they could be tools for diagnosing and improving the quality of a school’s education as a whole.

But the reformers rush straight past all that, and decide that the first best use of such data is to use it in performance reviews, and use it to give raises to good teachers and pink slips to bad ones. And, of course, the minute you start doing that, it becomes impossible to use the data for anything else, since the scores then become an end in themselves, rather than a means to an end.

In higher education, students have evaluated their professors’ teaching and course content for decades. Depending upon the institution (community colleges, small private colleges, large land-grant institutions, Ivy League schools), student ratings are used to varying degrees in salary and tenure decisions but they remain controversial. (see Student ratings of professors, American Psychologist).

Controversial or not in higher education, reform-driven policymakers and foundation officials, eager to find another metric beyond unstable end-of-year test scores that simply and inexpensively judges K-12 teacher performance, look to researchers to quantify student perceptions of how and what their teachers teach. Students do know a great deal about their teachers and professors; they sit in classrooms hundreds and thousands of hours each school year. Such information can be useful to help teachers and schools improve.

Not, however, if student perceptions of teaching are sliced and diced to fit into little boxes that can be checked off by principals and superintendents to determine teacher effectiveness and pay. Were that to occur, its usefulness will approach the likelihood of most people drinking rat poison.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

21 responses to “Students Evaluating Teachers

  1. Pingback: Students Evaluating Teachers | Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice « The Sharing Tree

  2. Pingback: “Rat Poison” & Students Evaluating Teachers | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

  3. Definitely see major concerns about gamin. What stops me as a teacher from essentially bribing kids with less homework, candy, higher grades, etc. ? I think those survey questions are great and I use them in my classroom, but as a way to inform me to improve my teaching. I think it could be potentially beneficial to share these results with a principal or coach and have them problem solve with you, but it becomes dangerous when it becomes a part of the formal evaluation process.

  4. …or you may even get what you got here in the UK not that long ago, teachers fighting back by rating their own pupils. Hilarious if disturbing reading, for anyone serious about reform.

    • larrycuban

      I went to Frank Chalk’s blog and read some of it, Joe. It is, as you say, funny to read angry teachers shouting out about unruly and ungrateful students. It is also a commentary on the inevitable tensions that exist in schools between teachers and students.

  5. Note how much the criteria rest upon fairly conventional ideas of what good teaching is–control, keeping students busy, etc. But then once again until we deal with the fact that there is wide disagreement about purposes, we can’t all assess schools with the same tool!! Again, it’s why communities need to be involved in such decisions–and, once again, high stakes undermine most such tools. Thanks, Larry!

  6. Pingback: Students Evaluating Teachers by @larrycuban | A New Society, a new education! |

  7. julmac

    I was a student in Arlington Co. when you first replaced O.U. Johansen, now a middle-aged high school English teacher in Connecticut and so very dismayed by so-called ed reform. Thank you so much for this post and all you continue to do. I hope I am still teaching when the pendulum swings back to some kind of sanity and before public education is wrecked.

    • larrycuban

      So nice to hear from you, Julia. What memories you brought back in mentioning Arlington and the Washington-Lee high school principal! Thanks for the comment.

  8. Thomas Grogan

    I have perhaps a somewhat unique perspective on these student evaluations in that I spent about 20 years doing market research for consumer products which involved lots of surveys and now teach developmental math at a community college.

    What strikes me most about the student evaluation surveys I’ve seen is how poorly designed most of them are. Students are asked to rate teachers on a variety of attributes many of which are inappropriate, such as “Does the teacher make proper use of technology”? I know from market research that the inclusion of direct questions on specific characteristics can bias any type of overall evaluation and affect open ended comments.

    I simply ask my students to tell me open-ended what they liked and didn’t like about my teaching and to rate me in comparison to their other teachers on a simple three point scale (better than, about average, or worse than). I use the results to monitor my performance and get ideas for where I might improve. No administrators see the data, so I have no reason to try to skew the results. My subjective judgement is that this is valuable information to me, but it’s usefulness would be compromised if used by others to evaluate me or determine my pay.

    • larrycuban


      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I do something very similar to what you describe for a mid-quarter evaluation. And, like yourself, I find the student responses useful and even summarize them in a subsequent class indicating what I will do different and why I do what I do in seminar activities. In short, I use it to improve how I teach. Like yourself, I believe usefulness would be severely undercut if others would use the results to determine pay or promotion.

  9. Whenever I read of teacher evaluation in the USA I am struck by the thought that the exercise is often about assigning blame, rather than addressing serious social issues. Isn’t it well-accepted that achievement is generally associated with other ‘positive’ social factors; students from ‘communities’ where ‘things’ are generally OK tend to do fine? The converse is generally true as well. :>( Why is it, then, that the written-up responses so often focus on getting rid of the ‘bad’ teachers in low performing (which I assert as socially disadvantaged) areas instead of trying to address the many factors that have the negative effects on the community at large? Perhaps if efforts were made at (a) enticing excellent prospects to pursue teaching (b) putting measures in place to reward effective teachers and (c) attempting to build up the esteem in which the USA held its teachers (just look at US TV if you don’t believe me. “Oh, she’s JUST a fifth grade teacher, why did she go to college at all”) the whole country would be better off. Instead, though, I see encouragement for the good and privileged to wall themselves away, setting up new exclusive schools while pooh poohing those who don’t seem to ‘cut it.’ If education was seen as an investment, not a reward then everyone would benefit, not just the few who have currently won the social lottery.

    • larrycuban

      Ah, Maurice, if only the attitudes you identify would change in the direction you laid out, much might be better for teachers and students in the U.S. But these attitudes–including blame–are part of the culture and hard to alter. Not impossible, but surely hard.

  10. Gary Ravani

    So, student surveys correlate closely to test scores. The National Research Council, as well as myriad other researchers, asserts test scores do not correlate to teaching ability. The advocates for all of this, beginning with the Gate’s cabal, are just looking for another way to bash teachers.

  11. Pingback: Students Evaluating Teachers | For Parents: About Teacher Effectiveness Policy |

  12. Pingback: Students Evaluating Teachers « edautomate

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s