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Students suggest better ways to grade teachers

Published: Monday, Oct. 22 2012 11:07 p.m. MDT

Nikhil Goyal, 17-year-old author and advocate for the role of student voice in education reform. (Phillip Angert) Nikhil Goyal, 17-year-old author and advocate for the role of student voice in education reform. (Phillip Angert)

SALT LAKE CITY — Nikhil Goyal says the learning stopped in third grade when his class began to prepare for state mandated math and English tests. Worksheets replaced science projects and "all the fun and joy in it just evaporated." Goyal, now 17, says it was his own love of learning that drove him to write and publish his first book "One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student's Assessment of School."

Goyal aims to revolutionize education in the U.S., a goal that includes developing holistic systems of evaluation for students as well as teachers. He says the current system overemphasizes student test score gains and fails to help teachers and students grow. For example, he says that instead of improving their own work and that of their students, some of his teachers instruct kids to strive for low scores each September, to create the appearance of academic growth when they take the test again in June.

Policymakers are beginning to recognize what Goyal and 50 million public schoolkids nationwide already know: Good teaching goes far beyond getting children to fill in answer bubbles. Over the next few years, school systems in cities across the U.S., including Memphis, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, and Denver, will phase in teacher evaluations that combine several measures to give a better picture of teacher success.

This approach is supported by the work of Harvard professor Thomas Kane, director of the Measure of Effective Teaching project. Since 2009, Kane and his research team have tested various methods of teacher evaluation to determine how best to fairly and accurately measure a teacher's effects on student success in general, regardless of quirks of any one student's performance on any one test.

Some results have been surprising. For instance, student achievement is not highly correlated to a teacher's level of education or scores on content knowledge tests. Rather, student success depends on whether a teacher demonstrates and promotes classroom behaviors that support student learning. According to preliminary findings released in January 2012, the best way to predict whether a teacher's future students will make academic gains is to combine test data from last year's students with two different sources of information on teacher and student behavior in the classroom: rigorous classroom observations and student surveys.

Teachers who scored well on all three measures were not simply "teaching to the test." Rather, this combination accurately predicted student growth on outside assessments of writing ability and conceptual mathematics, as well as on state tests. The MET project final report will be released in January 2013.

Rigorous observation

According to preliminary findings of the MET project, in order for classroom observation to be rigorous and accurate, teachers must have clear, specific expectations for teacher and student behavior in the classroom. To improve accuracy, teachers must be observed multiple times each year by different trained observers, including people with no personal relationship to the teacher.

In Memphis, rigorous classroom observation is based on a list of expected teacher behaviors called the Memphis City Schools Teaching and Learning Framework. The framework, 17 pages in all, describes behaviors for five levels of teaching. To achieve the highest ratings, teachers must demonstrate, for example, that they "use classroom space to enrich learning of current or recent content" and that they provide opportunities for students at all levels to "explain concepts to each other with the support of teacher facilitation." Memphis teachers can expect to be observed at least four times per school year by specially trained principals and peer observers. The results count for 40 percent of each teacher's overall evaluation.

Student surveys

Memphis City Schools will also use student surveys to evaluate teachers, though the surveys only count for five percent of the total evaluation.

Across the country, educators are hesitant about student surveys being used to formally evaluate their work. Tara Black, a first grade teacher, says she uses surveys with her students all the time to find out what is working and what she needs to improve. She likes using surveys to improve her teaching, but she calls the idea of surveys being used to punish her "not fun." Other teachers worry that student surveys could lead to popularity contests among teachers, rather than better teaching.

The trick, according to the MET project researchers, is to ask the right questions. Instead of eliciting students' personal opinions of a teacher, the student perception survey they tested, called the TRIPOD Student Survey, focuses on specific, observable student and teacher behaviors within the classroom.

In Memphis, students will be surveyed twice a year with the TRIPOD survey. The survey probes whether students agree or disagree with statements like, "Students in this class treat the teacher with respect," and, "The comments that I get on my work in this class help me understand how to improve."

Slow spread

The focus on more comprehensive teacher evaluation is slowly spreading among U.S. communities. All states have set basic teacher evaluation policies to comply with No Child Left Behind, but most leave the details to individual communities. This has given districts and cities in over a dozen states the flexibility to develop systems that include rigorous observation and student surveys. Most early adopting districts are east of the Mississippi River, but communities in Texas, Arizona, and Colorado have piloted similarly comprehensive systems.

Next steps

For Goyal, adding rigorous observation and student surveys is a step in the right direction for teacher evaluations. The next step is to end what he calls the "witch hunt" for bad teachers and shift the focus to improvement. His prescription can be summed up by an adage he picked up from his independent conversations with professors at Harvard, "Evaluate to improve, not to prove."

As for his own next steps, Goyal is graduating early, in January, from Syosset High School in New York. He is excited about pursuing work in the nonprofit sector and he plans to go to college in 2014 to study politics and public policy.

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