Should student surveys hold weight in teacher evaluations?

Student surveys about their classroom teachers have merit and could be useful, but school leaders should take care to not be too influenced by student feedback, according to a new review of a large-scale study of teacher effectiveness.

A report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Measures of Effective Teaching” (MET) Project gives advice on administering and using information from student surveys to evaluate teachers and provide feedback to them.

Asking Students about Teaching” aims to learn whether student surveys are a valid tool to help evaluate teachers. The report also offers guidance and best practices for using student feedback surveys.

The MET Project uses a student survey system called Tripod, developed by a Harvard University professor and administered by Cambridge Education.

According to the “Asking Students about Teaching” report, benefits to student surveys include:

  1. Feedback. Results point to strengths and areas for improvement.
  2. “Face validity.” Items reflect what teachers value.
  3. “Predictive validity.” Results predict student outcomes.
  4. Reliability. Results demonstrate relative consistency.
  5. Low cost. Expense of administration is minimal.

“For a survey to be predictively valid, it means that, on average, the teachers who get the most favorable survey responses are also those who are helping students learn the most. If students perceive differences among teachers, those differences should generally predict student outcomes,” the report notes.

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During MET Project analysis, researchers found that teachers who were ranked in the top 25 percent (according to Tripod results of students who gave favorable responses in each Tripod category) had students who learned about 4.6 months more of math than students whose teachers were ranked in the bottom 25 percent of survey results.

“Tripod’s predictive power accounts for less than half as many months difference when it came to gains based on state English language arts (ELA) tests (a common finding among many measures), but a clear relationship was found nonetheless,” according to the report.

However, a new review finds that the MET Project report doesn’t provide sufficient justification for many of its conclusions.

Professor Eric Camburn of the University of Wisconsin-Madison reviewed “Asking Students about Teaching” for the Think Twice Think Tank Review Project. The review was published by the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education.

Camburn’s own research focus is on instructional improvement, particularly in urban schools, and he has studied the use of survey methods to measure school improvement outcomes.

Camburn said he agrees that student surveys could be beneficial and that the report “contains many practical pieces of advice that are sensible and worth putting into practice.”

He cautioned, however, that the report’s claims of a strong relationship between student survey results and teacher effectiveness are not supported by evidence in the report itself.

Camburn further warns that a “broader limitation of the report is that many of the findings and conclusions are presented too uncritically and without sufficient justification.”

“Developers of the MET Project embrace the idea that multiple measures of teaching effectiveness are needed to represent such a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon,” he said. “However, in discussing the potential uses of student surveys, this report’s stance is lopsided, placing too much weight on the strengths of student surveys and not enough weight on their weaknesses.”

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