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Student Feedback May Be Underutilized in High Schools

Teacher development could benefit from student surveys similar to those used in college classrooms.

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Asking high school students to weigh in on teacher performance can improve achievement, experts say.
Asking high school students to weigh in on teacher performance can improve achievement, experts say.

If teachers and administrators want to know whether they're succeeding in the classroom, all they need to do is ask the students sitting in front of them.

Student feedback is better at predicting classroom success than teacher experience or graduate degrees, according to a January report by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

 [Learn how students can help improve schools.]

While student surveys are standard practice at colleges and universities, most high schools leave this resource untapped. But asking students how their teachers are performing is a no brainer, says Rob Ramsdell, vice president of the consulting group Cambridge Education.

"If we think about it, who spends more time in the classroom, observing the dynamics of the classroom, than students?" Ramsdell said at a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday regarding using student feedback to improve teaching practices. "In some cases … there's as many as 30 of them in a class. That's an enormous amount of observations."

Cambridge Education is hoping to mine those observations via the Tripod Project, a student survey system developed by a professor at Harvard University.

Tripod gauges student perceptions at the classroom level by presenting statements such as, "My teacher knows when the class understands, and when we do not," and "My teacher has several good ways to explain each topic that we cover in this class."

The survey has three versions tailored for students in grades K-2, 3-5, and 6-12. Student responses at the high school level include five options ranging from totally untrue to totally true.

More than 3,000 K-12 teachers in six districts used the survey in 2009-2010 as part of the Measures of Effective Teaching Project, sponsored by the Gates Foundation. Tripod surveys have also been administered in classrooms in China and Canada. Cambridge Education administers the survey and analyzes and reports the results back to schools.

Those results provide valuable insight for teacher development, Bill Hileman, vice president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, a local teachers union, said at Tuesday's panel.

[Find out what role school boards play in education.]

"I don't think there is a single teacher … who doesn't leap at the information that is in the reports that come back from these surveys," Hileman said. "If doctors don't listen to what patients say, shame on them. If teachers don't listen to what students say, shame on us."

The Pittsburgh School District piloted the Tripod surveys in 250 classrooms in 2009. Last year, the district surveyed students in more than 1,300 classrooms.

While the student feedback collected via these surveys has helped inform teacher performance, Hileman says his school district is not going to factor the results into teacher evaluations just yet. Including the feedback from the surveys in evaluations presents logistical and cultural challenges­, he said.

"Will the behavior of teachers change in a way that it's not about the students, but it's about the teachers?" Hileman speculated. "We want teachers to get better so students learn … Whatever it takes to get there is the path we should follow."

Survey administrators are also hesitant to have student survey results weighted in high-stakes evaluations. Currently, most surveys are administered by teachers, and having an assistant principal or another authority figure proctor the survey could change how students respond, Cambridge Education's Ramsdell said.

More than anything, Ramsdell said he's concerned administrators will act too quickly and not give teachers enough time to respond to the feedback they receive.

"A teacher of mine once said that when you have a hammer, sometimes everything starts looking like a nail," Cambridge Education's Ramsdell said. "Our biggest fear is that people will start … applying too much emphasis on this part … and it will change the dynamics that make it a positive tool to use in the first place."

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