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Maren Johnson | Education, Education Policy | October 30, 2012

Hey, Ms. Johnson, Do you need a letter too?


Smart cards

By Maren Johnson

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.


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As long as we stay away from

Honestly, it seems as though the TPEP tripod (to use your analogy) has plenty of legs to stand on at the moment in terms of evidence! There is evidence from several observations by evaluators, there is evidence submitted by teachers for criteria that are not directly observable, there is evidence from multiple measures of student growth between two points in time.

What our evaluation system seems to be lacking is certainly not opportunities for evidence! Rather, the abundance of evidence and data from multiple criteria each with any number of sub-dimensions can be mind-boggling. The TPEP pilot overall in my district has been going quite well, but I have to say that some teachers are starting to feel a tad overwhelmed, mostly by the amount of evidence and data that is already being generated and has the potential to be generated. Adding a whole new set of data from student input (student surveys and the like)would be time consuming, and I am not sure that the benefit would be worth the cost.

I guess I think the tripod is more reliable with three legs instead of two. I teach a tested subject, and it's my new reality that I'm evaluated based on how much better my students do on a test they'll take this spring. I'm okay with using test scores to evaluate me as a teacher, if it's simply evidence that lines up with other, varied evidence. Having my administrator observe me is good evidence, but not fail proof. I think having my students participate by circling some attributes on a rubric would also be good evidence. Not fail proof, but none of it is.

My students, better than anyone, know how hard I work for them. Better than anyone they know that their test scores don't tell the whole picture of what happened in our classroom.

I think a problem with student input bigger than the reward/revenge issue is that it creates a whole lot of data, and I don't think administrators will ever have time to sift through that.

A better plan would be to have a consistent structure for gathering student input, then have the teacher sift through it for evidence she can use during her evaluation.

Hi Kristin,

I am in no way discounting student input. As I said in my post, and I want to emphasize again: students spend a lot of time with teachers and provide an important perspective--student surveys used by teachers can be very valuable. Teacher analysis of student feedback to inform instruction could be a great additional piece of evidence in an evaluation for teachers who chose to use it for things like end-of-course surveys.

However, I still am having difficulty seeing how to use student input as a summative piece in an evaluation. You suggest throwing out the highs and lows--how will we decide which student input to throw out? How much more time in an already time intensive evaluation process will this take?

Also, you mention student anonymity as a way to avoid giving retaliation or reward to a student for their input. Unfortunately, that would not eliminate the issue of student perception surveys reflecting student feelings and opinions which may have nothing to do with teacher effectiveness--anonymity would actually have the potential to make this problem worse.

It is important that teacher evaluations be valid--that the final evaluation reflect teacher effectiveness, and that other variables, such as feelings about a grade a teacher gave or something like that, be eliminated to the extent possible. That is why I am still having problems seeing how student perception surveys could be used a part of the summative score.

I think student input could be valuable. I think there's a way to get input from students that avoids the tit-for-tat element, and if input is anonymous there's no way to retaliate or reward a student for his input, anyway.

Also, there is always the useless input of "You're perfect! Don't change anything!" and the equally useless "You're the worst teacher I've had. I hate your guts." I think both extremes could be tossed, and the bulk of the input could be examined for patterns. Did every student say class time was wasted? Probably was. Did every student say they didn't feel like they got help when they needed it? Probably didn't. Did every child say they felt challenged and they learned something? Probably did.

I think we're overlooking a really valuable source of evidence when we discount student input.

Al, well stated.

Again it goes to how we use the data we collect. If we student perception to inform our teaching and find which students had positive and negative reactions to things we did, then it's great stuff. But if we use it to evaluate our performance as past of our job then the high stakes makes it a poor tool. High stakes ruin a lot of assessment tools.

Whitney Meissner

I have a feeling your student letters of recommendation would be fabulous. But I understand your point. I, too, worry that one or two "negative nellys" could skew results of my overall evaluation, or even just public opinion of me. Great food for thought, as usual, Maren.


Janette MacKay

I teach first grade. I could turn in all the notes from students that say things like "I luv yuo!" and "Yer the bst techr in the hole wrld!"

More seriously though, you make a very good point. The same is also true of parent input. Sometimes doing what is best for the child isn't necessarily what the parent thinks is best. That could definitely sway input. It could also result in teachers making decisions to please the parents instead of teaching what is best for the kids. Things like the recent Halloween party controversy in the Seattle School District.

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