A Push to Have Students Factor Into Teacher Evaluations

by REBECCA VEVEA | Dec 20, 2011 (Chicago News Cooperative)

The Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union opened negotiations earlier this month on a state-mandated requirement about what should–and should not–be included in teachers’ performance evaluations.

CPS and the union have until March to grapple with the specific terms, such as what tests to use for measuring academic growth, how much the results should factor into the evaluations, and how to measure the performance of teachers whose subjects are not tested on state exams.

To add to the mix, an organized group of public school students, the Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), are preparing a formal request to CPS in the coming months to include student input in the new teacher evaluation system.

Some teachers want their students to weigh in on their performance.

“I think my students are in a unique position to evaluate me because they are the only people who see me teach every day of the year,” said Alex Seeskin, an English teacher at Lakeview High School.

Still, many Chicago teachers remain hesitant and the CTU has not formally endorsed the inclusion of student surveys.

Last month, CPS and the Chicago Public Education Fund released a report that summarized the feedback they received from teachers on new evaluations. Many were concerned that students may be “too immature” to evaluate teachers, turning the measure into a “popularity contest.”

“I think students are mature enough to recognize the difference between a teacher who they like but don’t learn anything from and a teacher that they don’t like but expands their mind,” Seeskin said, but noted that student input should probably count for less than 10 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

Preliminary results from a two-year, national research project show higher achievement on test scores among students who said their teacher challenged them, kept them on task, made lessons interesting and cleared up confusion. Results from the second year of the study, called Measures of Effective Teaching, are expected to be released in January.

The study, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, sought to identify what components are the most indicative of a teacher’s success in the classroom. Pilot programs included classroom observations, student assessment data and student surveys and were conducted between 2009 and 2011 in seven urban school districts: Charlotte-Mecklenburg; Dallas; Denver; Hillsborough County, Florida; Memphis, New York City and Pittsburgh.

Ronald Ferguson, a Harvard researcher who drafted student surveys for the study, said findings on the reliability of student surveys are promising. He favors their use in teacher evaluations, but he urged school districts to make sure the surveys are fair to teachers and that they include multiple measures over multiple years, with no one metric accounting for the majority of the evaluation.

“It shouldn’t be either-or, it should be both-and,” Ferguson said.

CPS and the CTU are already at odds over a number of issues, including the move to a longer school day and year and the district’s plan to overhaul a record number of schools by firing the existing staff and allowing an outside operator to essentially restart the school.

The evaluation negotiations are required under a new state law, the Performance Evaluation Reform Act. The law stipulates that student achievement data must constitute at least 25 percent of a teacher’s overall evaluation during the first two years of implementation and 30 percent in future years.

The law allows CPS to make student achievement count for more than 30 percent of the total evaluation. CTU president Karen Lewis has said teachers are “completely against using a single measure as 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.”

Union leaders initially signed-on to the VOYCE proposal and scheduled a news conference to announce the agreement. That event was canceled at the last minute and it is unclear if the CTU still supports the plan. The union has declined to comment.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said the district “fully supports having the voice of students represented” in the new evaluation process.

Laura Meili, a middle-school English teacher at Mollison Elementary, said the success of any student evaluation will depend on the quality of the survey. She said the surveys in the Gates study are a successful model because they asked questions about teaching practice, not whether students liked their teachers.

“I want to be accountable to my students,” Meili said. “When we really think about the heart of our job, it’s about the kids and the kids’ voices are really important.”

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