When students grade teachers

When students evaluate their teachers, they’re remarkably good at identifying who’s effective and who’s not, writes Amanda Ripley in The Atlantic. Students evaluations have proved to be “more reliable than any other known measure of teacher performance—­including classroom observations and student test-score growth,”  researchers have found, Ripley writes.

Some 250,000 students participated in a Gates Foundation study of student evaluations, using a survey developed by Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson.

The 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 in evaluating teacher effectiveness, probably because students spend a lot more time with each teacher. And there are more of them.

Five items were linked strongly with student learning:

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 doesn’t waste time.

4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.

5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.

Teachers were surprised that caring about students was less important than controlling the classroom and challenging students, Ripley writes.

At McKinley Technology High School in Washington D.C., the same students “gave different teachers wildly different reviews” on Control and Challenge.

For Control, which reflects how busy and well-behaved students are in a given classroom, teachers’ scores ranged from 16 to 90 percent favorable; for Challenge, the range stretched from 18 to 88 percent. Some teachers were clearly respected for their ability to explain complex material or keep students on task, while others seemed to be boring their students to death.

Memphis now counts student survey results as 5 percent of a teacher’s evaluation in the annual review; 35 percent is linked students’ test scores and 40 percent to classroom observations.

The use of student surveys is spreading to Georgia and Chicago — and possibly Pittsburgh — Ripley writes.

About Joanne


  1. At the college level, the use of student evaluations as an input in tenure decisions has caused grade inflation, because professors who grade more strictly get lower ratings.

    In K-12, disruptive and disengaged students could retaliate against teachers that flunk them by giving them poor evaluations. Student and parent evaluations of teachers can be beneficial, but if they are used blindly, without considering the credibility of the evaluators, they could be harmful.

  2. The first two attributes of supposedly good teachers

    “1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.
    2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.”

    depend largely on what kind of students they have been assigned.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Really? You mean better students learn more?

      The next thing you’ll expect me to believe is that people who go to Harvard do well in life not because of anything they learned at Harvard but because they were good enough to be admitted in the first place.

    • Add number 3 (stays busy and doesn’t waste time) and you arrive at a justification for removing disruptive students of any flavor, color or stripe. Disruptive kids, whether criminal, class clowns or behaviorally/medically/cognitively disabled, spoil the learning opportunities for the rest of the class. It only takes one or two.

  3. I’m torn on this. I think that a lot of students do recognize a good teacher, even if they don’t like the teacher. When I taught at a CC, I got good evals from students whom I know failed the class – things like ‘She knew what she was talking about/ tried to teach us/explained things well, but I should have done my homework/come to class more/etc’. I know that some teachers go easier on students to get better evals, though. My impression of my students was that, if they felt like they could have passed (help was available, expectations were clear, policies were fair, exceptions were made in extreme circumstances) and if I seemed genuinely sorry about their failure to pass (which I was – some had hard circumstances and I hated to see the wasted potential) then they took responsibility for their own lack of effort.
    Unlike high school teachers, though, students do drop college classes so it is possible that I lost some of my more disgruntled ones before evals were done.