There is a wonderful piece in October’s The Atlantic that anyone who cares about educating kids ought to read. “Why Kids Should Grade Teachers” by Amanda Ripley makes a powerful case for incorporating student feedback into educational reform efforts.
As she notes in the article, a large body of research tells us that teaching quality matters “more than anything else in a school.” In the US, we’ve often sought to improve our teaching quality by evaluating teachers on student test scores. But while student achievement is a vital measurement, academic test scores do not offer insight into why students master a subject or how teachers could improve their techniques.
However, students see their immediate world with astonishing clarity, and they describe what is and isn’t working in the classroom with compelling authenticity and frankness.
We just need to listen.
When conducted and analyzed in a rigorous fashion, Ripley explains, the “surveys focus on the means, not the ends – giving teachers tangible ideas about what they can fix right now, straight from the minds of the people who sit in front of them all day long.”
Makes sense, right?
The research is gaining momentum. The article details the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s* findings on student perceptual feedback in their Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) study, which explored how student perceptions might compare with other measures like test scores and observations.
Student feedback was collected through the Tripod survey, developed and refined by Harvard Professor Ron Ferguson over years of research. The study concluded that “students seem to know good teaching when they see it,” finding that some student perceptual data are positively correlated with student achievement data, and in fact are more predictive than classroom observations.
But even with the research findings, it’s easy to get sidetracked by the politics and egos wrapped up in this educational policy conversation. One poignant example of this refusal to listen comes from a surprising source. In the article, Professor Ferguson admits to dismissing constructive feedback from the college students in his own classroom: “They say you didn’t talk about something and you know you talked about it 10 times.”
It’s troubling when the leading academic on student feedback’s connection to teacher quality can find a reason to discount feedback from his own students. Indeed, this kind of response is why students may not volunteer their opinions in their learning environments. “Will the adults in my school actually listen and care about what I think?” they wonder. “Should I even bother saying anything?”
At YouthTruth, a national non-profit student survey initiative, we’ve witnessed the opposite. Time and again we’ve been impressed by educators’ overwhelming commitment to use the actionable student feedback YouthTruth has gathered from more than 142,000 students in 219 schools across the country.
Our goal is to enable educators to integrate their students’ perceptual feedback into their decision-making. After all, when adults ask students about their experiences, we had better be ready to acknowledge and to use the information—even if we think we “know” better. Otherwise, we are reinforcing the stereotype that adults aren’t willing to listen to what kids have to say.
We believe it’s working. Participating educators and school leaders value both the quantitative data and the qualitative comments that YouthTruth provides. And eighty-five percent of school and district leaders report they are making changes based on YouthTruth data to improve student engagement, academic rigor, relationships with teachers, and college and career readiness.
Indeed, I was encouraged to see the article mention TNTP’s systematic use of student feedback to help develop and assess hundreds of teaching fellows this spring. YouthTruth supported TNTP (formerly called The New Teacher Project) through survey design, data collection, and analysis of 14,000 student responses about the classroom experience with over 400 new teachers.
The fact that this nationally recognized teacher preparation program was willing to take the courageous step of beginning to include the student viewpoint shows its importance. As TNTP’s President Timothy Daly says in the article:
“The advent of student feedback in teacher evaluations is among the most significant developments for education reform in the last decade.”
I couldn’t agree more. Anyone who has worked with children in any capacity, including parenting, must recognize that kids of all ages are capable of speaking the truth. We just need to be brave enough to listen.
* The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided funding for YouthTruth
Marny Sumrall is Executive Director of the YouthTruth Initiative at the Center for Effective Philanthropy.