We know innately in independent schools that relationships are central to the learning process. That is something that we have done well for decades and centuries – and, not incidentally, something that we should not lose sight of as independent schools move into work with online learning (as Michael Nachbar and I noted last year).
And yet, do we really listen to our students voices about the relationships forged in classrooms? We hear teachers describe it. We can sometime witness it (in classrooms, on our playing fields, and in our lunchrooms). But, what do the students actually think about their relationships? Certainly, our students have something to say– the proliferation of websites like ratemyteachers.com attests to that.
The Atlantic wrote about just this topic in their October 2012 edition in “Why Kids Should Grade Teachers”: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/why-kids-should-grade-teachers/309088/2/?single_page=true
The article focused on new research funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on the importance of student voice in the evaluation of successful schools:
[Student] responses did indeed help predict which classes would have the most test-score improvement at the end of the year. In math, for example, the teachers rated most highly by students delivered the equivalent of about six more months of learning than teachers with the lowest ratings. (By comparison, teachers who get a master’s degree—one of the few ways to earn a pay raise in most schools —delivered about one more month of learning per year than teachers without one.)
Students were better than trained adult observers at evaluating teachers. This wasn’t because they were smarter but because they had months to form an opinion, as opposed to 30 minutes. And there were dozens of them, as opposed to a single principal. Even if one kid had a grudge against a teacher or just blew off the survey, his response alone couldn’t sway the average.
Last week, I was speaking to a Board of a school in Connecticut about online learning. Before my presentation, there was a presentation on a recent parent satisfaction survey done for the school. After the presentation was complete, one Board member asked the researcher whether it was worth having a student satisfaction survey and whether other schools were doing such a survey. The researcher (one of the absolute best out there) replied that it was certainly worth thinking about, but that he did not know of a school that was collecting regular feedback of this type.
After the researcher was complete and before I took over the microphone, I pulled him aside and told him that in the future when he answers that question, he can say that he knows of a school that monthly asks for student feedback and uses that feedback as part of our faculty evaluation process and the school’s commitment to maintaining a “growth mindset”: the Online School for Girls.
Now I admit, maybe because we run an online school we figured from the start that student surveys would be as essential for us as it is for the Head of School to walk the halls in the middle of the day or greet students when they arrive on campus in the morning. However, early on, we decided not just to use student polling data for the purpose of gathering a sense of student engagement, but also as part of ongoing professional conversations with our faculty. And you know what surprised us, the teachers wanted that data too! They never really heard from students on the topics that we were polling on: how their classes met the pedagogical approach of the school; how their courses were organized; how much time students were spending on their course; and how easy it was to communicate with their teachers and how approachable they were.
This corresponds well to the reporting in the Atlantic:
Patricia Wilkins… received her survey results about two months later. She’d been teaching at the school for more than a decade, and had seen a lot of reforms come and go…But she was curious about the survey results… As she looked at the data in a small conference room during a planning period, she was quiet. Then she smiled. “I’m highest on Care. That’s what I felt, but I didn’t know that they felt it.” Nine out of 10 of her students said they liked the way their teacher treated them when they needed help; that was high compared with the average response from kindergartners nationwide. Her students seemed to think she challenged them, too, which was reassuring. Still, only half said their classmates stayed busy and didn’t waste time. “This is very helpful,” she said, nodding.
What we have found is that a combination of student feedback, administrator feedback, self-reflection, and close attention to adult contacts in our consortium’s schools has allowed us a fairly complete picture of our classrooms, student performance, and student success. When I was a division director at a great independent school in Maryland, I always felt like I was missing an important element in determining success of our teachers. I met with parents often, had good long conversations with faculty members themselves, made myself a presence in classrooms and in grade-level events, and talked to students all the time. The funny thing now is that I can’t do half of those things in the online environment and yet my Academic Dean and I feel like we have a pulse of our classrooms better than we ever did when we were present in the schoolhouse.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)