Survey Follies 

Improving education shouldn't rely on first proving that teachers are ineffective at doing the impossible

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Several school districts in Utah, including mine—Canyon School District—are implementing a new teacher-evaluation system, based on Senate Bill 64, passed in 2012, requiring teachers to be evaluated annually on "instructional effectiveness, student growth, and parent and student input." Like everything in public education, some parts of the evaluation system are good and many parts are clearly influenced by people with no experience in education whatsoever (in other words, most legislators.)

Part of our teacher evaluations are student surveys. The survey makes statements about the teacher, and students choose options 1 to 5: 1 = Never, 2 = Sometimes, 3 = Often, 4 = Almost Always, and 5 = Always. The recent results from my students were amusing at best, and deeply concerning at worst.

I felt validated receiving high averages on my ability to encourage students to express their opinions. I even agreed with them on the lower averages: Yep, I am more permissive with behavior in that class. I was impressed that my students noticed things I unintentionally overlooked.

One student mostly selected "1," which stands for "never." In order to earn a "never" on a statement like, "My teacher gives me feedback on my work," the teacherwould have to be dead. Grades count as feedback, and even the worst teacher awards grades. So the "1" scores don't bother me personally, because the evaluation statements are subjective.

Oddly enough, that same student did not rank me "1" ("never") on the last question of the survey, which is: "I would recommend this teacher to other students." In fact, every student responded with "Always." This is hilarious to me. It indicates that while a student may think I never do some pretty essential parts of my job, they'd still tell their buddies to take my class.

It made me wonder about the value of student evaluations in determining a teacher's abilities. Lots of the questions were emotionally subjective. Statements like, "My teacher supports us, even when the work gets hard," can mean different things to different students. Some kids assume that, unless the teacher inflates grades or hands out extra-credit like candy, the teacher isn't "supporting them."

While it's helpful for me to see how my students responded to my teaching, if subjective data determining whether or not students like their teachers is then used to hurt teachers who actually do their jobs, we have a very big problem. Critics of the new legislative-backed evaluation system claim the system is designed to fail teachers, proving to the community that public education is a failed system.

Beyond student evaluations, the classroom observation part of the evaluation process seems particularly damning to teachers. For 15-20 minutes, an administrator enters the classroom and looks at a different student every 20 seconds to see if that student is "on task." The observer also tracks how many times the teacher talks to each student, and determines whether the conversation was effective or not. A "Good job, Bobby," doesn't count. The interaction must be "sustained" and must encourage the student to engage in critical thinking. In a class of 38 students, it's impossible for any teacher to talk to each student, or even each group of students, in an engaging and sustained way, all while making sure the other 37 students are perfectly "on task" every 20 seconds.

But these statistical impossibilities can be used to suggest that teachers don't monitor student engagement or interact with students in meaningful ways. It allows critics of public education to argue for privatization, a voucher system or an increase in alternative/charter schools. It also allows the Legislature to justify spending less on public schools that "don't work" and more on buying gadgets and computer programs to teach our students more "effectively."

Can you imagine if we did this with other public-service professions? Well, why don't we? I'd like to fill out a citizen survey for every member of the Utah Legislature, and have that evaluation play a role in determining their pay. I also want to observe every legislator for 15 minutes once a year to determine if he or she is effective according to absolutely impossible standards, such as the ability to fund public education without relying on the influence of partisan non-education lobbyists like the Eagle Forum.

More relevantly, where is my survey as an educator, in which I assess the government's and community's success in supporting me in educating our students?

I am not opposed to student feedback, or standards to ensure quality education. In both my student and administrative evaluations, I received high scores. According to these evaluations, I am "highly effective." I'm beating the system. But it doesn't stop me from recognizing the system is inherently flawed.

Improving education shouldn't rely on first proving that teachers are ineffective at doing the impossible. It is unfair to pass legislation determining what "effective" teachers should accomplish without corresponding legislation that help teachers succeed. For instance, the Legislature needs to reduce the maximum number of students in each class if it requires sustained interaction with each student. Likewise, we should abandon the "one-size-fits-one" model of evaluation to accommodatethe challenges of individual classrooms and schools. Until then, the Legislature fails to "support me, even when the work gets hard."

Stephanie Lauritzen is a high school teacher who blogs at MormonChildBride.blogspot.com.

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