Evaluation Reform: Part One – Student Voices

In a stack of papers called Reform.

  • Jul
  • 12
  • 2005

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have been a high school English teacher for 7 years and co-chair of the English department for 4 years.

After reading Virginia Postrel’s claim that teacher achievement of any objective standards be determined by a “boss’s professional evaluation,” Gary Bloom wrote that, instead, students’ feet should determine teacher efficacy. The idea of students choosing their teachers is an interesting one that revolves heavily around the idea that, given the choice, students will choose what’s best for their long-term education, that they will want to be challenged and will make choices that reflect that desire.

Students choosing the easy route make up a large percentage of any public school. I’d say that easily 80% of the students in any high school will choose the teacher who shows movies and simply requires basic recall of class lecture over the teacher who reads novels and requires challenging essays. Yes, students in public school choose Advanced Placement (AP) classes. They choose to enroll in summer enrichment classes, classes that are taken during summer vacation not to make up for failed classes, but to push their education further ahead so they come back in the fall ready for a junior-level class in their sophomore year. A percentage of students opt to take challenging courses for a percentage of their day.

But even those students do not take a full day of AP classes; they do not take the AP class in Philosophy when they plan on majoring in engineering; they do not take an AP class in an area they are uninterested. For those areas, they will take the bare minimum and likely the easiest teacher.

Students regularly choose to go to counselors in order to transfer from a “hard” teacher to an “easy” one, claiming anything from unfairness to harassment in order to get out of that “hard” teacher’s class. I had a student who speaks fluent English transfer out of my class into a class for English language learners (ELL). A senior in danger of not graduating if my class was failed, that student was failing my class due to simply not turning in any work at all; there’s no reason that student couldn’t have done better in my class. I challenged that student to stay and to work on improving English skills. Instead, that student moved to the ELL class, a class that was far below that student’s English ability, a class that represented the easy route. Anecdotal, sure, but that’s the reality of public schools all across the nation. Students will not push themselves in every area, an obligation we look at teachers to fulfill. Students not choosing a certain teacher may speak more to that teacher’s quality that you’d think.

Students choosing teachers says very little about how well a teacher teaches the content. Students are not good at examining how well a teacher does his or her job as far as the content standards are concerned. Students are, after all, kids. As kids, they judge teachers largely on attitude, not aptitude. They regularly make bad, bad decisions and often don’t see a larger picture, deciding a subject is “boring” because the payoff isn’t immediate. Teachers cannot be punished for the myopia of youth. However, a student’s perception of a teacher should be taken into some consideration.

Student evaluations should be involved in rating a teacher, but it should be taken with a grain of salt, given teenagers’ possibility for immature revenge against the dread teacher who “gave” them an inferior grade. If there are any teachers who are giving grades instead of allowing students to earn them, that’s a problem that requires immediate attention and redirection.

What’s better: a teacher who knows the content well or a teacher who is entertaining with the subject matter? Sure, a combination of both is best, but remember what a teacher is hired to do: TEACH. That doesn’t necessarily mean “entertain,” “engage,” or “inspire.” If we expect teachers to be entertaining (and I mean the dictionary definition of that word, which says, “to amuse”), then let’s pay them for that. If, instead, we expect teachers to push students’ knowledge further along in the appropriate subject areas, let’s pay them for that. To mix both tasks is perhaps a mistake. To expect both tasks is certainly a mistake. To experience both is a blessing.

NOTE: This entry is also posted on my Bayosphere blog.

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