When a parent asks their kids how they are doing in school, one of the first questions that pops up is what do they think of their teacher.
In most cases, kids are honest and don't hold back.
They might consider their teachers incompetent, boring, unpopular, or just downright mean. But then again, they could give them top marks, seeing them as inspirational leaders and role models, and will do whatever it takes to get into their classes. Identifying the strengths and weaknesses of teachers is valuable to parents, who can use that feedback as a tool to help identify potential barriers to learning before they become deep-rooted problems for students.
But could student evaluations of teachers help school administrators improve learning opportunities? The president of the Prince George District Teachers' Association thinks a formal student survey is a good idea.
Matt Pearce said there's plenty to be gained from polling students about their teacher's classroom methods, especially considering the changes already happening in schools as technology-savvy kids adopt new ways to learn course material. It could be as simple as asking a teacher to use a PowerPoint presentation, rather than waste time writing material on a board.
"I think it has value in informing teachers about how effective their teaching practices are," said Pearce. "Hearing from the students is something teachers want because that kind of feedback can be immediately used by a teacher to discard practices that aren't effective with students and implement changes that can be effective."
Pearce is aware of websites like RateMyTeachers.com that give students a chance to post comments about individual teachers. He said student feedback could even help shape professional development choices made available to teachers.
Student surveys have been utilized for decades in colleges and universities to help administrators in performance reviews of instructors and the idea is gaining traction in some K-12 schools in the United States, spurred by favourable response to a study conducted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that began in 2009.
Recognizing individual grade school teachers receive little feedback on their work, the foundation started the Measures of Effective Teaching project to test new approaches to identify effective teaching methods. Involving 3,000 teachers in seven U.S. cities, the project's goal is to improve the quality of information about teaching effectiveness, help build fair and reliable systems for teacher observation, and provide them with feedback.
The B.C. Education Ministry distributes an online student satisfaction survey at the end of each school year which also goes out to parents and school staff. However, the wording of the questions does not allow an outlet for students to express dissatisfaction with their teachers.
Education Minister Don McRae says he would be reluctant to ask students to take part in classroom survey critiques unless teachers, parents and school board trustees push for it.
"I really wouldn't want to go down this path without having consultation with a lot of the stakeholders in education, because if you're going to make more work for people you want to make sure you're getting good value for doing it," said McRae.
"Teachers are always being rated anyway from feedback parents and students give teachers, administrators and counselors on a pretty much daily basis. So if you were to ask a principal in a school what teachers are doing really masterful jobs and what teachers are struggling, most of the student administrators are pretty good at that already.
"There's some real value in having student input, but also some real danger. If you have a system where the teacher who gives out an easy 'A' in an academic class becomes the most popular teacher according to students, are we getting proper feedback? I'd say no."
Detailed teacher evaluations are conducted during classtime by principals and vice-principals. Teachers in their first five years or those who have taken on new assignments are supposed to be evaluated more frequently than long-serving teachers. But Pearce said because School District 57 administrators are site-based managers required to oversee the budgets of their individual schools, they do not have much time for evaluations. Each requires several hours over multiple days, spread over a three-month period.
"Unfortunately, evaluations aren't done very frequently at all, I'd say there are only several dozen teachers in the district in a given year," said Pearce. "What we do is fairly complex and it takes a great deal of time and it takes somebody with experience. It's not a drive-by with a checklist."
The merit of asking students who spend hundreds of hours in classrooms for ideas on what teachers can do to improve is intriguing to SD 57 superintendent Brian Pepper. Pepper believes informal student surveys can help teachers and during his teaching days in Prince George he asked students at the end of each school year to fill out anonymous questionnaires for him to evaluate his own performance. However, Pepper says there's no point in the district adopting a formal student poll as a performance indicator unless there's a system in place that shows administrators how to make use of that feedback to remedy faults and inadequacies in teachers.
"I'm not for or against it, I'm just saying a survey on its own is an incomplete method of ranking teachers," said Pepper.
"You need a trained evaluator and the criteria needs to be clearly understood. The students need to know the process for evaluation. Unless you have that mechanism to utilize the data in some way, the process is flawed. You need a process that goes beyond that, so that you have a continuing method to increase and build the competency of your professional staff."
SD 57 chair Sharel Warrington said most teachers ask students for feedback continually during the school year and have much to gain from student opinions, but she's not in favour of mandatory student evaluations.
"That would be up to the teacher how they would like to invite that conversation," said Warrington. "If I want to get feedback about my role I believe it's my responsibility to ask people to give me feedback. If a teacher sees that as an important part of the way they deliver work in the classroom, it's a healthy thing to do. The more discourse we have with students and the more respectful relationships we forge with them, the better that classroom and the learning environment is going to be."