Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Gimme an A or I’ll Get You Fired—Student Blackmail, Latest in Ed Deform

Hot off the wire from Good Education and the Hechinger Report: a new K-12 pilot program in Georgia has students at every grade level evaluating their teachers, evaluations that will determine whether a teacher keeps her or his job.

Sounds crazy, but it is becoming more and more common for administrators to demand evaluation reform that includes student test data, evaluations of teachers by their students (and/or students’ parents), and even evaluations by other teachers.

This new trend is particularly dangerous and should be vigorously opposed by all teachers.

As I have written ad nauseum in this blog, student test scores primarily reflect their socioeconomic backgrounds, not their teachers’ skill. Value Added scores are notoriously inconsistent, with teachers being rated good one year and bad the next, primarily due to fluctuations in student ability from year to year and the inconsistency of the algorithms used to assess them.

Asking students to evaluate their teachers’ curriculum, pedagogy and rapport can be a useful exercise for teachers to initiate themselves in order to improve their practice. However, having administrators ask students to evaluate their teachers and use this data to determine if the teacher will be retained creates a dynamic in which students can blackmail their teachers (e.g., “Give me an A or I’ll write a bad evaluation.”) Even if students do not blackmail teachers, the dynamic will still encourage teachers to have softer disciplinary policies, allow students to break rules, assign easier and fewer homework assignments and make it easier to get As in hopes of bumping up their ratings with students.

Furthermore, students are not reliable evaluators of adults. They lack the experience and maturity to understand why teachers do many of the things they do and many lack the communication skills to provide meaningful evaluations. This is true even at the high school level, but especially in the K-5 grades. At the end of the year when I ask students to reflect on the course and my teaching, I routinely get comments like, “It was fun,” or “It was boring,” while I rarely get any kind of concrete suggestions or criticisms, like “you should pause more during lectures to give us time to digest what you have said.”

What student evaluations do provide is an opportunity for administrators to collect teacher data without doing any work (or by doing much less work). Shift one more of their job responsibilities onto someone else.

The biggest problem with the current evaluation system is not that it cannot work or that too many bad teachers are slipping through the cracks. The biggest problem is that administrators are biased, poorly trained and lack the time to adequately observe their teachers.

To obtain accurate assessments of teachers, the evaluator must be an objective, well-trained 3rd party, who lacks the power to fire teachers and does not work for the teachers’ district. Ideally, the evaluations should be done blindly, without the evaluator even knowing the teachers’ names. And their caseloads must be easily manageable. Currently, high school administrators may have 20-40 teachers on their caseloads, making it impossible for them to get in more than a short observation or two per year or to write any detailed and meaningful comments.

According to the article in Good Education, student surveys already count for 5% of teacher evaluations in Memphis and will soon count for 10% in Chicago.

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