Students at the college and university level take for granted that they will be asked at the end of each semester to fill out an evaluation form on each of their instructors.
The surveys ask for a variety of input, centred around three core questions - did you learn something, did you feel what you learned was valuable and would you recommend this class and this instructor to others?
Professors and instructors use these anonymous surveys to gauge how they did with the class and whether they need to make changes, such as a new textbook, to use or not use PowerPoint, to make class notes available online or not, and so on.
Departments use the forms as part of their reviews of teaching staff. Along with research work, departmental activities, conference attendance, test scores and feedback from colleagues, students surveys help department heads decide whether professors deserve promotions (and the pay raise that comes with them).
At the high school and elementary school level, however, students are not asked what they think about the ability of their teachers to teach.
That could be changing.
In an excellent article in the October issue of The Atlantic magazine, Amanda Ripley explains how a growing number of American schools are using a student survey put together by a Harvard economist to gather more data on teacher performance.
The results are fascinating. For starters, more than 99 per cent of the students fill out the survey seriously (statisticians can easily measure when an individual survey has been skewed - filling in all the same answers, for example, regardless of the question). Nationally, the results are comparable, regardless of the race of the students or the teachers and other demographic variables, such as gender, geography and age (of the teachers and the students). Using a simpler version of the survey, the seven-year-olds have shown they will provide answers as reliable and meaningful as the 17-year-olds.
The variable is the teacher.
Different blocks of students over time tend to see and report the same things, good and bad, about each of their teachers.
Here are five of the questions, where students are asked to fill in a reply on a sliding scale, from strongly disagree to strongly agree:
1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.
2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.
3. Our class stays busy and doesnt waste time.
4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.
5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.
As adults looking back on our own high school experience, we remember the teachers who "reached" us with their enthusiasm for education and their great teaching skills. These aren't necessarily the teachers we "liked" the most or gave us the best grades.
In hindsight, wouldn't we recognize the valuable input today's high school students could give about their teachers by answering simple questions like that?
Even if administrators received the student input data without the names of teachers attached, it would still be helpful, because it would point to areas where the school faculty needs overall help, allowing for more targeted instruction during professional development days.
Used with other assessment tools, surveying the students, particularly at the high school, seems like a promising new way to gauge teaching effectiveness and help teachers, administrators and the ministry improve the education process.