Student success is the outcome of a number of factors: nutrition, mental health, peer influence, the domestic environment – the quality or actions of a teacher is but a small part of the pie that is an education. So, what of the growing trend to “rate” teachers online via a public forum? Or in-school, via a confidential system that only students and the school authorities are privy to?
Student voice, premised on the idea of agency for students in a system in which they were previously underrepresented, has grown to such a point that students now regularly sit on panel interviews with new hires… Where half and quarterly term “feedback surveys” are given to students, forcing them to evaluate their teachers’ methods at every step of their learning journey. The BBC is now covering stories of teachers being ‘Bullied by Online Grading’. Are we finding ourselves going down a dangerous, or a more progressive, path?
WHY DO WE NEED TO RATE TEACHERS?
Throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, official data began to reveal that some teachers enabled their students to learn at significantly quicker rates that other teachers. A research paper by Stanford University’s Eric A. Hanushek showed that while some of the country’s top teachers helped their students gain more than a year’s learning, in the same amount of time the lower achieving teachers taught a mere six months’ worth of learning.
Teacher evaluation suddenly became a hot topic.
Systems around the world were revamped in order to gather better information regarding teachers, their course structures and the educational outcome for their students. In some ways, it was progress. In other ways, it gave birth to a witch hunt that has since continued right around the globe, with many schools taking advantage of the system to identify and remove “bad teachers” quickly and efficiently, rather than help them to improve their teaching.
The reasons for rating teachers are simple. It provides gratification to parents wanting to ensure their hard-earned dollars are being well spent – and to the maximisation of their child’s wellbeing. It helps make school authorities accountable for the actions of their chosen staff. Teacher evaluations can also support the professional development of some teachers, with HR personnel at international schools around the world increasingly coming to rely upon third party reviews on ratemyteacher.com and similar sites as a means of assessing teaching quality prior to hiring.
WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL DOWNFALLS
Student voice can be a brilliant tool in terms of promoting student wellbeing, implementing new school initiatives or uncovering areas of need that school leaders were previously unaware of, but giving student voice a public platform can be damaging. It has been revealed that the socio-economic background of a student can influence the ratings they give their teachers, with some disproportionately low ratings being given to teachers at high-poverty schools, resulting in smaller salaries for them. Another negative implication of using rating systems is that they force competition amongst teachers, giving rise to unnecessary tensions.
One of the key issues relating to student evaluation of teachers is the question of just how competent students are to make judgments on teaching quality. How is it that a 12-year-old is deemed sufficiently knowledgeable on a subject to be able to evaluate the teaching quality or course design of that subject? Millennial students are already teetering on narcissistic, why add fuel to their fire by empowering them to judge their superiors with potentially slanderous outcomes?
On that note, “rating” teachers – especially publically - can have significant, long-term consequences on teachers’ reputations.
Ratemyteachers.com, for example, is a free online resource that allows users to anonymously rate teachers and professors. Users can also post comments and see the comments posted by others. The downfall of the website is that anyone is able to rate and comment on a teacher – posts are anonymous so they cannot be verified. This means the livelihood and reputation of any teacher from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, United Kingdom or the United States could be subject to the ruinous actions of a malicious former colleague or acquaintance – or perhaps an underperforming student with a bad attitude.
The site literally acknowledges that it has “no way of knowing who is doing the rating - students, parents, regular people, dogs, cats, etc”, a feature that can very easily prove to have libellous consequences for teachers, schools and students.
On websites that compile teacher ratings, student voice can very easily go from sincere to sinister, from a force for good to a force to be reckoned with – and it’s no wonder some teachers and education boards are concerned. As Nate Williams, associate professor at Williams College in the United States writes,
“My livelihood depends on what my students say about me in course evaluations. Good ratings increase my chances for raises and tenure. By contrast, there is no mechanism in place whatsoever to evaluate how much my students learn--other than student evaluations (and, here at Williams, peer evaluations). So is it safe to assume that good evaluations go hand in hand with good teaching?”
He makes a great point. If a student is going to “rate” their teacher, it needs to go hand in hand with a comprehensive, synced evaluation of that students’ performance and behaviour in class; a similar “rating” mechanism for the teacher to rate the student by. Oh – that’s right. Those are already in place. We call them reports. But they aren’t publishable online, so why must we now begin publishing the grades of teachers who are but one side of a two-way-relationship?
The impact of damage caused by such platforms was such that former British education secretary Alan Johnson called for action on the “new form of harassment” they presented.
"The online harassment of teachers is causing some to consider leaving the profession because of the defamation and humiliation they are forced to suffer."
He was referring to any website that published videos of teachers filmed on students’ phones in an attempt to bully them, but ratemyteacher.com was listed as one the offending sites.
Student feedback is an effective tool for faculty development – don’t get me wrong. It’s important to sensitise educators to their students’ needs and to ensure that “best practice” is translating to “best outcomes” for individual students. But perhaps using rating systems and then publishing them on a public forum is counterproductive to the purpose of teacher evaluation, which is ultimately to provide feedback to teachers and guide their professional development.
By enabling students to characterise teachers as “good” or “bad” on a scale of 1 to 5, it hardly allows students to give their teachers meaningful feedback. Rather, we should be focusing on improving mechanisms that enable students, parents and teachers to be more accountable to one another, where teachers can actively seek and welcome student suggestions on how the learning experience can be enhanced.
This needn’t be difficult. It could simply involve asking students to fill out an enhancement survey at the end of each exam or course, offering extra credit in return for a suggestion on how to improve the learning experience.