06/25/2013 10:40 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

From the Mouths of Babes: The Potential of Student Surveys


Making the Grade is a series of blog posts written by teachers that charts the progress of evaluation roll-out in each of their school districts. The teachers will address what's working well and what remains a challenge, and will offer recommendations for getting the most out of new evaluation systems nationwide.

Today's blog post is by Jonathan Alfuth, a teacher at the Soulsville Charter School in Memphis.

If I considered only my student achievement data last year, I appeared to be an effective teacher. But I sensed that my classroom culture was stagnant because my students had little say in how our classroom operated. I resolved to use student feedback to find out what I needed to change.

To acquire feedback from my ninth graders, I created my own student survey, based on the TRIPOD survey, to help me collect data. Sure enough, my first survey revealed that my students felt that I did not care if they participated in class. I modified my instructional practices immediately.

While my survey is self-made, professionally created surveys such as the TRIPOD are receiving national attention as a possible component of teacher evaluation systems. When the Measures of Effective Teaching Project published the results of their three-year study of teacher effectiveness, I was shocked that the results suggested that effectiveness is most accurately measured when student surveys like the TRIPOD are weighted equally with observations and student achievement data.

Research like the MET project suggests that these surveys should be a critical part of any teacher evaluation. Teachers like me understand the benefit of having student feedback, but there are still many questions regarding the purpose and administration of a student survey that will impact evaluation and compensation.

I applaud Memphis City Schools, where I taught through the 2012-2013 school year, for being a pioneer in using student survey data. Currently, 5 percent of the MCS teacher evaluation score comes from the TRIPOD. To learn more about how my fellow teachers view this tool, I solicited the thoughts and opinions of several of my colleagues across the city.

Throughout my conversations, I found several key concerns and recommendations for any district to consider when implementing student surveys to help and possibly grade teachers must do:

• I found that many teachers are skeptical of the way the surveys are composed, with a focus on the language. An elementary school colleague asked me how her students were supposed to grade her on whether or not she pushes them hard enough when they believe that "push" refers to a physical action on her part. Other teachers commented that such surveys often rely on upwards of 100 questions, which leads to student pushback. These concerns are also shared by teachers in ESL and Special Education whose students need multiple accommodations to complete the survey. Teachers recommend tailoring the surveys by grade level and even specialty to bring more accurate and authentic results.

• Almost all teachers have serious concerns around implementing student surveys. Teachers informed me they were simply handed the surveys on Wednesday and told to return them, completed, by Friday. There was confusion as to what classes were to be surveyed and certain students who did not belong on certain rosters and other issues like that. At one point the teacher being surveyed was allowed to be present; then, the next time he or she was not. Teachers feel the concept of the survey is beneficial, but the communication and process needs to be timely and more organized.

• Finally, I've heard teachers comment that the survey does not benefit them because scores are not reported quickly and they do not fully understand the categories and report format. Some teachers may discredit the validity of the scores simple due to misunderstanding, whereas I now know from experience that regular student feedback offers essential information for improving instruction and rapport. Further professional development and clearer survey methods will demonstrate to teachers how useful student feedback can be.

I give high marks to Memphis City Schools for keeping a step ahead and posting the scores online for the 2012 Fall TRIPOD. I also give high marks to MCS for pioneering using surveys in teacher evaluations and for re-evaluating the types of questions and the length of last year's survey. With continued reform, student surveys can become a more heavily weighted and valid component of teacher evaluation.

Teachers desire a voice in education reform. And it is time that we listen to another voice that should speak the loudest about classroom instruction and culture: our students.

Jonathan Alfuth taught high school mathematics in Memphis City Schools for two years, and now teaches at the Soulsville Charter School in Memphis.