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Student surveys seen as unlikely evaluations element, for now

Inspired by a 2010 study that found that students’ feedback about their teachers helped predict how well the teachers’ students performed on state tests, New York City asked some schools last year to test out a student survey that could become part of new teacher evaluations.

But if the city and its teachers union agree on a new evaluation system this year, student surveys are unlikely to play a role, according to people on both sides of the negotiating table.

The Gates Foundation-funded Measures of Effective Teaching study found that student feedback and teacher observations combined were more closely correlated with teacher effectiveness than observations alone, or any number of other attributes of teachers.

The city participated in that study and adapted the survey used in it, called Tripod, for use last year in 10 of the 108 schools in the Teacher Effectiveness Pilot, meant to test possible components of overhauled teacher evaluations.

Under the state’s new evaluation law, 60 percent of teachers’ ratings must come from subjective measures such as principal observations and peer reviews. The State Education Department has said student surveys can play a role, too, if districts and their unions agree.

The head of the state’s teachers union says student feedback could be a useful element of evaluations. But city union officials say they are staunchly opposed to incorporating student feedback in teacher evaluations.

UFT Secretary Michael Mendel said the union’s position is that it is inappropriate to ask students to make high-stakes decisions about their teachers, because it puts the students under pressure and also could encourage teachers to put student approval ahead of student learning.

“Could you imagine if you were a teacher and you were ineffective by a point or two because you were rated ineffective by the children?” Mendel asked.

Even though city Department of Education officials say they would like to see student surveys play a role in evaluations in the future, they dropped the surveys from the pilot program this year.

“I think it’s something that we have to introduce into the process, initially with low stakes, so that teachers can see what the data looks like and see what they think of it and begin to trust it,” said Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky.

The Tripod survey, which the state has approved for use in evaluations, asks students to mark how much they agree with statements about their teacher and classroom. Items are broken down under “seven C’s”: care, control (of the classroom), clarify, challenge, captivate, confer, and consolidate. Statements include “Student behavior in this class is under control”; “My teacher knows when the class understands, and when we do not”; and “My teacher really tries to understand how students feel about things.”

Issues like those are ones that only students can speak to, said Kara Kreisberg, a Spanish teacher at West Bronx Academy for the Future.

“They’re the ones that are in the room,” she said. “As many walkthroughs [by administrators] as you have, the students are the ones who see it all.”

But students don’t understand other important components of what it means to be a good teacher, such as planning lessons or using feedback to improve, according to Joseph Vincente, a chemistry teacher at East Side Community High School.

“Student feedback is important but it’s also limited,” he said. “They don’t get to see the behind-the-scenes work.”

So far, Syracuse is the only large district in New York State that has agreed to use surves in new evaluations. The district’s chief academic officer, Laura Kelley, said Syracuse schools will use surveys at all grade levels.

“We just felt the student perspective would be a valuable perspective,” Kelley said.

Dick Ianuzzi, the president of the state teachers union, said he supported evaluation plans that included multiple measures. Validated student surveys such as those used in the Tripod Project, he said, could be one measure.

“Student surveys, just like self-reflection, are all pieces that when you add them together you get the multiple measures that give you a sound evaluation,” Ianuzzi said.

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