Students know good teaching when they see it

by David Safier

This is an interesting observation which, like all observations about education, needs to be stored away and evaluated rather than being accepted outright. That being said . . .

As part of a Gates study, thousands of students evaluated their teachers in confidential questionnaires. The students' evaluations tended to agree with the more data-driven evaluations of teachers' abilities to boost their students' achievement.

To the extent this is true, it means students aren't fooled. They know when their teachers are getting the job done and when they're not. That makes sense, especially with students at the high school level. These young folks see five teachers a year, day in and day out, and they have at least 8 years of prior experience with all the teachers they had in elementary school and middle school. They have a reasonable basis for comparison. So they are in a good position to say, "Compared to my other teachers, Ms. Jones is doing a good job in the following areas, but Mr. Smith sucks as a teacher on 9 criteria out of 10."

It also says to me, students of good teachers generally show positive results on the data-driven analyses that involve testing and similar criteria. I don't want to give testing a good rap, but it's a fact that good teachers tend to raise their students' achievement, even the achievement narrowly measured on standardized tests, more effectively than poor teachers. That tends to be true even when the good teachers don't spend a lot of time teaching to the test.

I can see a number of problems if this kind of evaluation were institutionalized, most of which come from teachers and students gaming the system, so I'm not advocating for its general use. But as a spot evaluation tool, it can be valuable.

Here's the most promising news for me. One of statements for students to evaluate was, “We spend a lot of time in this class practicing for the state test.” Those classes where students agreed made smaller gains on the state tests than when they disagreed. I have a funny feeling I shouldn't reach the conclusion I want to reach, that teaching to the test doesn't work. But it's tempting.

0 responses to “Students know good teaching when they see it

  1. Re gaming the system, Bill. As a high school teacher, I can see both students and teachers playing with the evaluation system. Teachers could suggest to students that their grades will come out a bit more favorably if the evaluations look good. Students could play that the other way: “You know, Mr. Jones, if you keep giving out all those bad grades and sending kids down to the principal, you’re not going to get very good evaluations.”

    I would prefer somewhat random, spot evaluations of teachers by students. I did that once with the cooperation of the school’s curriculum director. Without announcing it, one day, I gave all my students a form to evaluate me, anonymously, and promised a student would collect them, put them in a sealed envelope and carry them down to the office without my being able to see them. The students had no chance to talk about it or think about it beforehand, so I think they probably gave a fairly accurate, unguarded evaluation. If they knew it was coming in every class every May, I think its value would be lowered.

  2. David;
    This result isn’t in the least bit surprising. After all the students have hundreds of hours observing their teachers while others (principals, superintendents, parents, etc.) have only a few.

    Seems like we could do away with using standardized test results and just ask the students. As for “gaming” the system—my college teaching colleagues always claimed this was possible but I never saw any evidence it worked.

    Bill Astle