Should students have a say on teacher evaluations?

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In Rhode Island a group of students are advocating that high schools deserve to have a voice in the evaluations of teachers.

Karen Feldman, the director of Young Voices, a Rhode Island nonprofit group that grooms high school students to be community advocates, says her group supports a set of long overdue reforms currently being considered by the Board of Regents, but also wants to see the addition of a first for Rhode Island and perhaps for the nation: a component of the teacher evaluation completed by students.

The student contribution would not be not for the purposes of altering a rating or to influence disciplinary actions, but "to influence teachers' professional development choices" says Feldman.

The Rhode Island Federation of Teachers has not taken a formal position on on whether student input should be included. Marcia Reback, president of the union, cautioned that "there are students who key teachers' cars or assault teachers out of anger, and some will take their anger out in the opportunity to evaluate." But she expressed confidence that policymakers would weigh the student input component fairly, if it is even included in the final evaluation standards.

Here's our Q&A with Young Voices student leaders Heiry Borrell and Jennifer Ventura, juniors at Classical High School in Providence.

How do you think adults in your school would respond to the idea of a student voice in teacher evaluations and what would you say back to them?

Hiery: I think there would be a lot of negative feedback from adults--they'd say that we are immature. They'd say that kids are biased because maybe a student hates a teacher because that teacher gave the student detention or something. But we are mature enough to evaluate our teachers fairly.

Jennifer: I think that students should be allowed to evaluate teachers because we are with them 180 days, and if we feel that we are not learning anything and the teacher is not being effective, in the end that hurts us.

Why is student voice so important to include in teacher evaluations?

Heiry: Teachers might change the way they teach if they see students are involved in evaluations. When just administrators are in the class for 20 minutes, the teacher acts differently than he does the rest of the time.

Jennifer: When teachers get evaluated by adults, some of them put on a persona that is not them. They switch everything up a little and make it seem like the class is really perfect, but sometimes I have some teachers that aren't that way. They just lecture all day. If we were able to evaluate them we could tell the truth: that we don't learn anything.

Do you think if teachers saw their student feedback, they would change the way they teach?

Jennifer: Yes, because teachers would realize that their teaching isn't as good as they think. If students could evaluate teachers, then they could see that there might be something missing in what they are doing, and they could improve.

Do you think student evaluations will happen?

Heiry: I am hopeful because we are fighting for it and we are going to be very persistent.

With or without the student piece, the Regents intend to approve evaluation standards by year's end. An overhaul is long overdue. Currently a tenured teacher in Rhode Island can go for five or more years without being formally observed, and the state has no policy on whether teachers with unsatisfactory evaluations can be dismissed.