Can Student Surveys Measure Teaching Quality? the Results Are In: Surveys of K-12 Students Covering a Range of Classroom Characteristics Linked to Teacher Quality Can Successfully Predict Student Achievement

Article excerpt

Consider this: Once there was a classroom filled with busy students getting their work done. The principal often marveled at how well-behaved they were when she peered through the small window in the classroom door.

But, what she could not see was that most lessons were uninteresting, assignments emphasized memorization more than understanding, and many days the teacher seemed indifferent to students' feelings and opinions. It was not a happy place. There was no love of learning. The principal and the teacher believed that his teaching was great because his end-of-year test scores were almost always above average. Neither understood that anything was wrong. Neither asked the students.

In higher education, colleges and universities rely on students to evaluate teaching. Student responses to teacher evaluations help administrators make pay and promotion decisions, and enlighten fellow students about courses to take or avoid. But, can students in primary and secondary schools help evaluate teaching?

They spend hundreds more hours in each class-room than any observer ever will. Nonetheless, until now, school improvement efforts have seldom sought systematic student feedback at the classroom level (as opposed to the whole school level) in primary and secondary schools. One impediment has been the doubt that students can provide valid and reliable responses about the quality of the teaching that they experience.

The Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation tests whether this doubt is well-founded. For 3,000 teachers, the MET project examines multiple measures of teaching, including value-added test score gains, observational protocols, professional knowledge tests, and student perception surveys. To measure student perceptions, MET selected the Tripod student survey that I developed in my consulting work with public schools. Tripod refers to content knowledge, pedagogic skill, and relationships.

From this work, we have learned that well-crafted student surveys can play an important role in suggesting directions for professional development and also in evaluating teacher effectiveness. However, there are some very important cautions to keep in mind. First, any method of measuring a classroom is prone to measurement error. Second, and perhaps most importantly, if a single deployment of a survey or observational protocol can have major consequences, then many teachers may temporarily alter their behaviors during the measurement period to try to influence the outcome. This has the potential to make the measurements invalid. For both reasons, a wise rule to follow is that no one student survey or classroom observational protocol--and no single deployment of any one measure--should be used by itself to have a large effect on any teacher evaluation decision.

I join many others in believing that the way forward for the field of teacher evaluation and support should be "multiple measures, multiple times, over multiple years." And student surveys should be one of those measures.


The first few generations of the Tripod survey (from 2001-05) were refined in consultation with K-12 teachers and administrators in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and 15 member districts of the Minority Student Achievement Network.

Since then, multiple surveys geared for different age groups have continued evolving and the work has spread around the nation and even abroad. From 2001 through 2012, almost a million elementary, middle, and high school students in the U.S. completed Tripod surveys. Items have been added and replaced each year to gradually develop a stable set of valid and reliable indices. By responding to these surveys, students have provided feedback to their schools and teachers not only about their schools as whole institutions, but also in the specific classrooms where they took the surveys. Teachers receive personalized summaries of the responses from their own classrooms. …