When I miss school for a professional reason, I like to briefly explain to my students why I will be gone—I want my students to know I do not take being absent from their class lightly. Before attending a recent training on our new teacher evaluation system, I told my chemistry students a bit about what I was going to be doing. I even showed them our colorful UW CEL instructional framework “Smart Card”—hey, it’s a little like the Periodic Table of Teaching!
Just before this, one of my senior students had asked me for a letter of recommendation. I have had this student in class for several years and would be happy to write one. Before I was going to be absent, I explained to the class the new teacher evaluation system as involving observations as well as teachers gathering and submitting evidence. Clearly, the student who had just asked me for a letter of recommendation was listening. He leaned back, raised his hand, and said with a big grin, “Ms. Johnson, do you need a recommendation letter for your evaluation too? Let’s talk about this—maybe we can work something out!”
The whole class laughed, and immediately understood the potential situation: teacher and student conspire to write each other inflated letters for mutual benefit. This group of seventeen year old chemistry students had quickly grasped some of the problems inherent in student input for teacher evaluation, such as perception surveys. Our new state law, 5895, allows for the possibility of, but most certainly does not require, student input to be used. It may be bargained locally. I do not know if any districts in the state are doing this.
This brief exchange with my students in class just highlighted some of the potential problems. Students want to curry favor with a teacher, for whatever reason? They’ll skew the student input one direction! Students upset at a teacher, again for whatever reason? They’ll skew the student input another direction. These reasons may well have nothing to do with teacher effectiveness, seriously calling into question the validity of perception survey data for teacher evaluation. Can student surveys be used by teachers themselves to improve their courses and their instruction? Yes, what a useful tool, and many teachers take advantage of this. Student input when used in this formative way by teachers is valuable. Students spend a large amount of time with teachers, and can provide an important perspective. However, as has often been mentioned in my district, perception data includes both facts and opinions. It is difficult for me to imagine an appropriate and valid summative role for student perception data in an evidence based teacher evaluation system.