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Students Evaluating Teachers: It’s Time to Ask the Kids…and Then Listen to Them

Professional Growth

One day Alan*, a high school student in my special education English class, exclaimed in frustration, “All we ever do in here is read and write!” It was a proud moment for me. A huge compliment. That statement validated for me that I was doing it right, not wasting precious instructional time with frivolous activities.

My students had learning challenges. They struggled with reading and writing, and I was teaching them those very skills. Except that Alan wasn’t paying me a compliment. He was complaining. He was telling me he was unhappy in the learning environment I had so carefully crafted for him and my other students. Had I truly listened to his comment, I might have adjusted my teaching. I might have helped my students not only build their skills but also an understanding of the value of reading and writing – to see themselves as competent readers and writers. Instead, I forged ahead pushing raw skill over appreciation despite Alan’s and probably other students’ distaste for the work. Sadly, it was a missed opportunity for change.

It’s not easy to hear from others about our work performance, especially when their observations and resulting assessment don’t match how we think we’re doing. Personnel evaluation is a perennially uncomfortable part of employment. One fear is that evaluators won’t judge us fairly, that they won’t accurately assess how well we do our jobs, or that they will observe us at inopportune moments when we’re not at our best. We’re sure they don’t know our jobs as well as we do.

These sentiments aren’t unique to teachers, but are widely held by employees in any field. While some are evaluated on monthly or quarterly outputs or other performance metrics, teachers are generally evaluated on their instructional performance, and every teacher knows teaching can look different at any moment in time.

Why is evaluation so important?

Evaluation helps us understand the quality, value, and importance of something. It helps us understand how and how well something is working, and evaluation results can be used to inform future planning and action. Whether we are evaluating a program, a product or a person’s performance, we pose evaluation questions, collect relevant data to help answer those questions and analyze the data to arrive at a set of conclusions.

Being evaluated by a supervisor is part and parcel to being an employee. But increasingly, organizations have moved to more expanded views of employee evaluation. The concept of 360 degree feedback is not new, but something we haven’t (yet) fully embraced in schools. At its core, 360 feedback is gathered not only from supervisors, but from peers, colleagues, subordinates, etc. with the idea that as employees, we need to understand how we are perceived in the workplace and what our impact is on the people we encounter every day.

Just as we know that students shouldn’t be evaluated based on one measure (i.e., one test), teachers should also have the benefit of multiple measures of their performance, from multiple perspectives. And where principals may be reticent about offering negative feedback because it may introduce conflict, students may be more forthcoming.

Why invite students to evaluate teachers?

Current trends in education point to students participating in their education and taking on roles in their schools in ways that differ greatly from what most adults have experienced. Consider these:

  • A focus on teaching social emotional skills
  • Students becoming change agents
  • Restorative practices and classroom community building
  • Improving school culture and climate
  • Personalized learning

Engaging students in evaluating teachers, whether on a formal or informal basis, is well-aligned with these trends. In fact, many large public school districts have tried larger-scale student evaluations of teachers, including Boston, Anchorage, Pittsburgh and Washington, DC (LaFee, 2014) with varying degrees of success. Some used commercially available surveys designed for this purpose, while others created their own.

Probably the most well-known commercially available student survey comes from the work of Ronald Ferguson, a Harvard economist who extensively researched students evaluating teachers. Fergusons’s survey became the basis for a comprehensive study – the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project. Early results from the MET study indicated “surveying students about their perceptions of their classroom environment provides important information about teaching effectiveness, as well as concrete feedback that can help teachers improve” (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2009).

And that’s not all. An article in The Atlantic describing Fergusons’s work says this:

That research had shown something remarkable: if you asked kids the right questions, they could identify, with uncanny accuracy, their most—and least—effective teachers.

The point was so obvious, it was almost embarrassing. Kids stared at their teachers for hundreds of hours a year, which might explain their expertise. Their survey answers, it turned out, were more reliable than any other known measure of teacher performance—­including classroom observations and student test-score growth (Ripley, 2012).

Where might we start with student evaluations?

When we consider the idea of students evaluating teachers we can imagine two distinct scenarios:

  • The collection of student feedback is mandatory, is communicated to principals and plays a formal role in contributing to a teacher’s personnel evaluation.
  • Individual teachers choose to ask students for feedback that stays between teacher and student, and is not used in a formal personnel evaluation.

More teachers would likely be comfortable with the second scenario, so if we think about experimenting, why not start here? Offer teachers the opportunity to pilot a student feedback survey, or work as a team to create their own. Give them the option of keeping the data to themselves and perhaps coming together only to reflect on the experience of gathering student feedback. Build a cadre of champions and cheerleaders before going all in school wide or district wide.

What if we could really hear students’ voices?

It’s easy for us to dismiss student voices, but let’s face it, whether their feedback is invited or not, our students are always evaluating us! It’s just that most of us have never given them a framework in which to do it, nor have we given them the message that we appreciate and value what they have to say about our performance. There are numerous potential objections to student evaluations.

They’re just kids, what do they know? They don’t have the maturity or sophistication to know what it means to evaluate someone. They don’t understand the art and science of teaching. They’re just out to get me because I’m strict and make them do their work.

And there are always questions about which students may be capable of engaging in evaluation. What about very young kids in preschool or primary grades? What about students with significant intellectual disabilities? Teachers may imagine them incapable of evaluating at all.

What if we were able to cast aside these objections? What if we could navigate around the challenges and find ways for all students to be able to express how they feel about their teachers and their learning environments? What if we were truly able to listen even when students tell us something we don’t want to hear?

And what if we learned something about our own teaching? What if we learned that our “teaching style” – whether we adopt or eschew technology, cooperative learning, open-book testing, field trips, etc. – doesn’t work for all of our students? What possibilities might be opened up for us to change our practice?

*a pseudonym


Sheila B. Robinson, Ed.D.

Sheila B. Robinson, Ed.D., of Custom Professional Learning, LLC is a speaker, educator, and consultant with a passion for the science of teaching and learning. She works with clients in education, business, government, health care, research, non-profits and more. Sheila has taught thousands to reach, teach, and connect with audiences through her talks and workshops. She designs professional development and university courses on program evaluation, survey design, data visualization, and audience engagement. She earned her Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from the University of Rochester in 2007. Sheila is a Certified Presentation Specialist (CPS)™ and the Director of Education, Training and Advocacy at the Presentation Guild, and Senior Design and Facilitation Consultant with Evergreen Data. Sheila is an active American Evaluation Association member where she is Lead Curator for AEA365 Tip-A-Day By and For Evaluators.