City Balks At Students Helping To Grade Teachers

Melissa Bailey PhotoAs the state moves ahead with new teacher evaluations, New Haven is grappling with how to meet one unpopular new requirement: letting students determine a portion of their teachers’ grades.

New state requirements take effect this fall for teacher evaluations to be based on student performance.

The state has granted New Haven a waiver allowing it to continue using its own new teacher evaluation system, which debuted in 2010 to national acclaim, instead of scrapping it to adopt the new state model. The permission, however, came with a few conditions.

Now New Haveners are balking at one of the new mandates: that student surveys should dictate 5 percent of a teacher’s grade.

The topic has gained focus nationally. New research identified student surveys as one of the top three best ways to measure teacher quality. New Haven charter schools have already started using them in that way.

In New Haven’s public school district, however, the idea has met resistance. In interviews with the Independent, students, teachers, administrators, and the head of the teachers union all argued that the surveys should not form the basis of a teacher’s grade.

Melissa Bailey File Photo“We most definitely need student feedback, but it belongs nowhere near a teacher’s evaluation,” said teachers union president Dave Cicarella (pictured). He said that would open up teachers to retribution from kids who act out in class or get a bad grade.

Schools Superintendent Garth Harries (pictured) called the concern “fair.” He said a group of teachers and administrators is currently figuring out how to respond to the state’s directive.

The district is figuring out “how to have a genuine and authentic response to the conditions on the state waiver that doesn’t diminish students to an arbitrary percentage, but also doesn’t expose teachers to potential capriciousness” of their students, Harries said.

“We don’t want to just throw student feedback in in a way that alienates teachers, or treats it as a number, without getting to the value of student voice,” he said.

The Waiver

The directive from the state came in a letter dated Aug. 13 from Sarah Barzee, the state’s interim “chief talent officer.” In the letter, Barzee approved New Haven’s request for a waiver from the conditions of the new teacher evaluations. (Click here to read it.)

Overall, Barzee wrote, the state is pleased with New Haven’s way of grading principals and administrators, which has been in place for three years.

New Haven teachers are graded on a five-point scale based on two main components: Goals teachers set for their kids’ performance on tests; and their “professional values” and “instructional practice,” as measured by self-assessments and classroom observations. Principals are graded in a similar way.

In her letter, Barzee granted New Haven permission to keep using the same evaluations as long as the district adds another component: “parent, peer and/or student feedback.” Approval of the city’s waiver is contingent on meeting that requirement, Barzee wrote.

Barzee also gave New Haven one year to figure out how to include a measure of “whole-school student learning” into the evaluations, another state requirement.

The mandate stemmed from a landmark education reform bill the Connecticut legislature passed in 2012. The law set up a new way of grading and supporting teachers and principals called SEED (System for Educator Evaluation and Development).

SEED lays out set percentages for each part of a teacher’s grade. It assigns 40 percent for teacher performance; 45 percent for student growth on teacher-set goals; 10 percent for “parent or peer” feedback; and 5 percent for “whole-school student learning indicators/student feedback.”

The state recommends incorporating student feedback for teachers in grades 4 to 12.

A New Trend

The idea of letting students grade teachers has been gaining traction.

Proponents gained support from a recent study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the Measures of Effective Teaching Project. The study concluded in January that student surveys—along with classroom observations and student achievement gains—were one of three “reliable measures” that, when combined, could “identify great teaching.”

“That was a surprise out of Gates study,” said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “It turned out student surveys were one of top three measures” for grading teachers.

(Click here to read more about the surveys used in the Gates study.)

Local charter schools in the Achievement First network have been using student surveys in teacher evaluations since the 2011-12 school year, according to spokeswoman Amanda Pinto. Students in grades 3 to 12 give teachers feedback on specific aspects of their practice, such as whether their instructions are clear.

New Haven doesn’t do that.

Students and parents in New Haven schools do take annual surveys about their schools. Those feedback is supposed to comprise part of principals’ evaluations. But New Haven teachers are not graded on that feedback. And students don’t fill out formal surveys on how their teachers are doing.

The proposal to do so met a skeptical reception around New Haven public schools.

A Student’s View

People interviewed for this story agreed they found value in student surveys—but not as a tool to grade teachers. 

Gabriela Millsaps (pictured at the top of this story), a senior at High School in the Community, said she has found surveys to be a useful tool. Her school doesn’t issue formal surveys, but some teachers use them for their own information.

Gabriela, who is 18 and lives in Woodbridge, recalled filling out lots of surveys for a former math teacher, Riley Gibbs, when he was new to the school. (Gibbs taught at HSC for three years before leaving the profession and moving to California.)

“Riley used to do it all the time,” said Gabriela. He would ask broad questions like, “How can I do better?” and specific questions like whether kids preferred working in small groups or listening to the teacher at the front of the room.

“If there was a thing to ask, he asked it,” Gabriela said. “That was how he zoned in on how he would teach.”

She said some kids protested when they had to take the surveys: “We’re not getting graded for it, why do it?” they reasoned. But they did fill them out, and as a result, had input on how class was taught, she said. “He was open to always hearing what was on everybody’s mind.”

She said the surveys improved communication between students and their teacher.

Despite that positive experience, Gabriela frowned on using the surveys as an evaluative tool.

“There’s always that handful of students” who would use the surveys to get back at a teacher, she said. And on the flipside, students who loved a certain teacher might issue only praise instead of candid feedback, she argued. Students would be “more honest” if they were giving feedback “free of consequences,” she opined.

A Teacher’s View

Teacher Cari Strand agreed. A former English teacher, Strand now co-teaches a class on math for social justice and serves as HSC’s magnet coordinator.

When a reporter walked up to her desk Thursday, Strand (pictured) happened to be holding a stack of student surveys on her lap. The surveys held student feedback on an event she had run that day, in which visiting lawyers had lunch with some kids.

Strand said she runs surveys after any event she puts together. When she taught English, she used to hand out quick “state of the student” surveys polling kids on how the class was going for them. She also used to issue an end-of-year student survey asking more detailed questions about the class. She said she found the feedback helpful.

“A good teacher should demonstrate to supervisors” that he or she seeks and responds to student feedback. “Some of it should sting, and should be raw, and I should grow from that,” Strand said.

But “I just don’t think it should be part of the evaluation process.”

“I worry about putting people’s careers in the hands of teenagers, because they can be so mercurial,” she said.

Adults are more able to set aside their biases when evaluating each other, she said.

Jill Savitt (pictured), who has taught at HSC for 30 years, said the school has always included student voices—sometimes even including themo n panels interviewing prospective teachers. But student voice “doesn’t have a place in evaluations” because kids might punish teachers unfairly, Savitt argued.

National Council on Teacher Quality’s Jacobs said that good surveys would not amount to popularity contests.

“Usually when teachers hear about student surveys, they are picturing Rate My Professor,” an online rating system in which students often post unflattering reviews, Jacobs said. Teachers picture a scenario where students give high marks to the teacher “who brings cupcakes” and slam the teacher who gave them a bad grade.

But she said if student surveys are done well, they can provide valuable feedback, such as “I don’t feel that comfortable asking a question when I don’t understand something.”

“Legitimate Fear”

Superintendent Harries said he sees both sides.

The Gates study showed that student feedback on certain questions was “among the most predictive factors in gains in student performance,” Harries noted. There’s certainly value in that, he said.

“Student feedback is an incredibly valuable and important thing to incorporate into a teacher’s classroom practice,” he said.

Melissa Bailey File PhotoHarries (pictured) said teachers also have “a legitimate fear” that students would “distort” their answers if they knew the feedback would affect a teacher’s job evaluation.

“You have to be careful of the questions that you ask students,” he said.

Michele Sherban-Kline, New Haven’s point person on teacher evaluations, said a committee of teachers and administrators are currently meeting every month to revise the city’s evaluation process. She said including student feedback will be one matter they’ll have to address.

According to her interpretation of state law, the district can opt to use school climate surveys, in which students give feedback on the entire school, rather than having students rate their individual teachers, as part of the evaluations.

She said the district is leaning towards using school climate surveys, rather than inventing new student surveys, but the decision is still in the air. “Everything is still on the table.”

Erik Good, the teacher elected by his peers to lead teacher-run HSC, balked at the notion of throwing either of those surveys into teachers’ grades. Good, who sat on the committee of teachers who came up with the city’s teacher evaluation, said the student surveys should be valid and reliable before they’re used in that way. He questioned how much sense it makes to use school climate surveys for that purpose either.

“What is the direct link between school-wide survey results and one particular teacher’s actions?” he asked.

Too “Formulaic”

Harries said one challenge in meeting the state guidelines is that the state has taken a more formulaic approach to evaluating educators.

State education spokeswoman Kelly Donnelly gave three reasons behind including feedback from parents and students in an educator’s grade: It aims to ensure educators are graded on multiple measures. It’s supposed to give each teacher “nuanced guidance” that can help educators address weaknesses. And it gives parents and students “the opportunity for meaningful engagement” in their school.

Amid concerns like the ones teachers mentioned above, legislators opted to assign student feedback only 5 percent of a teacher’s grade—an amount that is unlikely to affect a teacher’s final rating except in very marginal cases.

To set aside 5 percent of a teacher’s grade for student feedback would be antithetical to the approach New Haven has taken, Harries argued.

“Student feedback should be more important than just a mathematical formula,” Harries said. “Our nationally recognized teacher evaluation system does not reduce to a mathematical formula.”

New Haven gained national attention for the way teachers collaborated with management to come up with the new evaluations in 2010. The final result was a compromise between the status quo and the changes pushed by the national accountability movement. They replaced the old method, where all teachers were measured “effective” or “ineffective,” with a five-point scale. They raised standards for the profession, grading teachers in part on student performance, and making it easier to fire teachers who perform poorly.

But New Haven stopped short of the methods adopted in cities like New York, which uses an algorithm to determine the “value” a teacher adds to kids. Instead of using an algorithm, New Haven allows teachers to set their own goals for how their kids will grow—goals that are agreed upon by their supervisors. To ensure fairness, low and high scores are checked by an outside validator. The evaluation also includes mandatory conferences between teachers and their supervisors in which they are supposed to discuss their craft.

“The goal for us is not sorting of teachers. The goal is improvement of practice,” Harries said.

New Haven’s method also has no fixed percentage for each component. The student data and classroom observations are given different weight depending on how a teacher fares, according to a matrix.

If New Haven adds student feedback into the mix, Harries said, “it’s very important that it’s incorporated in a thoughtful and meaningful way for teachers, because the point is not a mathematical formula. The point is input to try to strengthen a professional’s practice.”

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posted by: Teacher in New Haven on October 21, 2013  9:32am

Difficult teachers are not always popular teachers.  But they are the teachers you want your kid to have.

posted by: markcbm on October 21, 2013  10:24am

Just want to say that I’m impressed with the way Melissa Bailey’s reporting on area schools and school systems keeps getting better and better, even if I disagree with some of the content from time to time. 

Keep up the good work!

posted by: Dwightblock on October 21, 2013  10:29am

What’s to be afraid of here?

It’s 5% of the evaluation score.

If the majority of kids in a teacher’s class skew their survey responses to affect that teacher in a negative way, isn’t that a sign of a BIG problem in the classroom?

If that last 5% pushes a teacher into the “needs improvement” or “must improve” category, isn’t that a GOOD thing?

posted by: Dwightblock on October 21, 2013  10:54am

Teacher claims difficult teachers are not always popular but they are the ones you want teaching your kids.

Difficult teachers are not only not always popular, they’re also not always good.  A teacher can be both difficult and a bad teacher.

posted by: Teacher in New Haven on October 21, 2013  12:07pm

Dwightblock is right on both counts.

posted by: Bill Saunders on October 21, 2013  3:00pm

The kids have more ‘on-time’ with the teachers than the Administrators do.  Give them a say—It is empowering.

posted by: JohnTulin on October 21, 2013  4:20pm

As a NHPS teacher, I often struggled to teach my students how to read on grade level (not 5 levels below their grade), respect their peers and their school, to care about what goes on around them, how to speak to adults, how tough life can be once you are 18, how to hand in forms on time, how bring something back to school the day after it was given to you (like a textbook)...and most of the time I met resistance and apathy. 

And these same kids are going to play a role in evaluating teaching and determining my career after years of schooling and certification programs?  Only non-teachers would think this is a good idea - because they have no idea what they are talking about. 

Empowering, that is rich. Taking command of your education and your future by trusting your teachers and working hard, now THAT’S empowering.

posted by: nhstudent4ever on October 21, 2013  10:30pm

When viewed as a whole class, student surveys should provide a pretty good idea of how the teacher is actually doing. If there are outliers, that’s one thing, but if a majority of the students want to “get back at a teacher”, that’s indicative of a larger problem.

What happens to teachers who are found lacking? I think it would be wrong for the evaluations to lead to direct firings, but a poor evaluation should definitely trigger a meeting to figure out how administrators can support that teacher better.

posted by: True that on October 22, 2013  5:13am

There are many thoughtful points by commentators.  It is important, however, to consider that no school system can evaluate itself to better teaching.  It is also important to point out that at least 60% of the correlates of student achievement are found outside of school.  Given that students spend only 15% of their total time in school, one has to wonder what is happening with them for the other 85% of the time.  What makes teachers better is meaningful professional development, solid administrative leadership (both at the school and district levels), consistent support for those who are new to the profession, appropriate levels of resources available, a pre-service experience that is deep and meaningful, and parents who do what they are supposed to do with their children.  While Finland is often seen as a model for public schools on a global scale, it is actually more difficult to get into the school of education in Finland than it is to get into either law or med schools.  One of the pre-service problems with teaching is that there are too many schools of education in this country (the greater new haven area alone has 4)and these schools have a wide variance of quality.  A very wide variance of quality.  Student feedback is extremely helpful; it can often bring about reflection the part of administrators and teachers.  However, using a student evaluation of a specific teacher as part of the teachers’s evaluation - irrespective of the percentage it holds - does not make good sense.  The Gates study in this area is being misunderstood.  The survey’s do not improve student learning. Gates is of the opinion that everybody except school administrators knows how to evaluate teachers.  If Gates had his way, there would simply be an algorithm to assess teachers, and school administrators would not be necessary.  Oh wait, there is an algorithm for that in the SEED model.  What’s next, K-12 online learning with no teacher? Oh wait, we already have that as well.

posted by: Teachergal on October 22, 2013  2:09pm

I agree student surveys can be very beneficial BUT should be private between student and teacher. The surveys can be very beneficial to the teacher and empowering for the students. Administrators need not be involved unless teachers want to share them.