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Thompson: Why Must All Data Become a Grade?

GradeteachersIt is easy to see why the Gates Foundation seeks to add teeth to student survey data by making it a part of teachers' evaluations. The Atlantic's Amanda Ripley, in Why Kids Should Grade Teachers, began with the awful story of a student who never had a chance to express her judgments about school until she filled out a survey during her senior year. Ripley also cited the disappointing experience of Ronald Ferguson in persuading teachers to pay attention to survey results.  Over a decade, "only a third of teachers even clicked on the link sent to their e-mail inboxes to see the results."

However, Ripley described a principal who benefited from surveys in a pilot program where he was unable to see the teachers names,"but he said he still found the information more useful than what standardized tests provided."  “'It’s very, very precious data for me,' he said." Ripley then closed with the student's complaint about "some crappy teacher [who] is still sitting at that crappy desk." 

To replace those teachers, however, we must do something about crappy school cultures. To create respectful cultures, a genuine conversation between teachers and students is required.  We must not undermine the great potential of student surveys in guiding those discussions by attaching stakes to them.  And once we engage in such a dialogue, I would have a modest proposal for a teacher who refused to read such data.  Fire him.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via

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John,
One of the things that bothers me about the Gates approach is the fixation on measurement and evaluation. I think feedback and data of all sorts are potentially useful in helping us to grow. But what I know about human beings is that in order to change, that is to grow, we need to reflect, we need to own our actions and influence, and we have to have a sense of power over ourselves and our work. What is the best environment to foster growth?

It seems like with this measurement lens, we are attempting to use the evaluation process as the focal point for this growth. Why? It seems to stem from the idea that if we do this properly, we will "force" people to improve. They must have avoided improving in the past due to inadequate measurement and supervision, so once we fix that, and have not only test scores, but the watchful eyes of every student on the job, then teachers will have no choice but to improve, or face the consequences.

I think this is counterproductive. It could lead to students using their feedback as leverage in pressuring the teacher indirectly. Placing this feedback into an evaluative framework makes it potentially punitive, rather than positive information.

I think student feedback for teachers is needed. I do not think placing into an evaluative framework is the best way to use it.

Yeah, you're right. Why would they want to risk a tool as important as well-crafted student surveys by attaching stakes to it? Chances are that the stakes will become the focal point, undermining reflection. The same could be said about other aspects of the MET. Studying vidoetapes for reflection and pd would likely be undermined by making it a part of evals, and vams for purposes for which they are valid will be scuttled by the Gates' misuse of them.

It seems to flow from this assumption that people will only attend to these things if they are compelled to do so. But "compulsory reflection" has an oxymoronic quality to it, doesn't it? As if fear of losing one's job is going to somehow result in more thorough reflection. In my experience, fear sends our behavior down into a survival mode, and we may change in order to escape the bad consequences, but these changes are likely to be superficial. Fear short-circuits genuine reflection and growth.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.