I read this morning in The Atlantic an article describing a strategy to assess teacher performance in Primary education that has been gaining momentum and attention lately. The basic idea is that the students – the ones who have to study under the teacher for several months – are the ones that assess the teachers based off of a comprehensive questionnaire regarding teaching performance and classroom atmosphere. Sounds novel, right?
There is always difficulty in making accurate inferences from such surveys as the possibility to “christmas tree” the answers is present with the students. And giving the surveys sufficient weight in wage and employment decisions will create an incentive for the teachers to appeal more to the year-end surveys than to the students’ academic development. Such is the case many times with the incentives regarding standardized tests.
Luckily, students seems to be taking the test pretty seriously:
“There are some students, knuckleheads who will just mess the survey up and not take it seriously,” Ferguson says, “but they are very rare.” Students who don’t read the questions might give the same response to every item. But when Ferguson recently examined 199,000 surveys, he found that less than one-half of 1 percent of students did so in the first 10 questions. Kids, he believes, find the questions interesting, so they tend to pay attention. And the “right” answer is not always apparent, so even kids who want to skew the results would not necessarily know how to do it.
…At least for the first ten questions.
If the education establishment wants to move in the direction of teacher assessment via student surveys, then I think this is a good direction to go. The trick is creating questionnaires that ask the right questions and that provide accountability even if the teachers give in to teaching just for the sake of the year-end surveys:
The survey did not ask Do you like your teacher? Is your teacher nice? This wasn’t a popularity contest. The survey mostly asked questions about what students saw, day in and day out.
Of the 36 items included in the Gates Foundation study, the five that most correlated with student learning were very straightforward:
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.
Adding questions regarding the perception of teacher competence probably couldn’t hurt either.
To add on to this, I think a short, year-end testing of teachers in their respective subjects could be helpful. Teachers need to be competent in their areas if they are going to develop thinking skills among their students. This allows them to communicate better and push their students to higher levels as they, themselves grow to learn more about what they are teaching. The results of such tests would be held privately and if the teachers perform poorly, then the school can suggest a training program to complete and then re-assess after that program is complete. If no improvements are made, then they are let go.
Moving towards excellence is always the right direction to go. There are many ways of going down that road and I think that this will prove to be a useful tool in assessing teachers and giving students a voice for positive change. We can expect there to be a lot of friction from teachers’ unions as dismissals increase from the survey results , though. It might be the time to reign in some of the power wielded by these unions in an attempt to foster long-term excellence.