Another Revolution Starts in Boston: High School Students in Boston Transform Conversations on Teacher Evaluation and Succeed in Having Their Voices Heard

By Chu, Dan M. | Phi Delta Kappan, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Another Revolution Starts in Boston: High School Students in Boston Transform Conversations on Teacher Evaluation and Succeed in Having Their Voices Heard


Chu, Dan M., Phi Delta Kappan


Seven years. A lot can happen in seven years: The first African-American president was elected in the wake of the worst recession since the Great Depression, "Avatar" shattered box office records, ousting "Titanic," the Arab spring brought down decades-long monarchies, and somewhere in Boston, students found a glaring issue within their own education system. Seven years. That is how much time has passed since students began the ongoing battle for student feedback in teacher evaluation. There were struggles, there were triumphs, and it has been a long battle that has yet to finish.

Beginning with homework

Student feedback in teacher evaluation was not the initial idea envisioned by many Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC) members. BSAC is a citywide body of student leaders representing most high schools in the Boston Public Schools. One Monday afternoon in 2006, BSAC members gathered to discuss various issues plaguing their schools--everything from school safety and racism to lunches and sanitation. Because BSAC represents the entire district, students had to be strategic and find a common goal that each member would be willing and eager to work on. A similar concern shared by everyone was the abysmal quality of homework.

There are two types of home-work: good homework and bad homework. Good homework enriches students' educations. It not only reinforces what they learned for the day, but also builds on the groundwork laid by the day's lesson. Bad homework, on the other hand, does nothing more than force students to grind through more of the same thing they already spent hours on in school. Although there is a saying that practice makes perfect, there is a limit to how much practice one can do. Twenty to 30 algebra problems a night is manageable; assigning 100 of them does not help the student. Busy work only forces students to divert valuable time from more productive endeavors, such as sports and extra-curricular activities.

BSAC members agreed the quality of homework was not as good as it could be, but they needed more evidence. So, BSAC surveyed 777 high school students and found that students believed that homework too often failed to enhance their education.

Constructive feedback

One more question had to be answered: Why were teachers assigning bad homework? After flipping through contract books and student manuals, BSAC concluded that teachers were not being held accountable for quality homework, among other things. Administrators evaluated teachers infrequently, and rarely did the reviewers see the true side of the classroom since they came in for only one period per year at best. Students agreed that they could contribute to evaluations because they were in the classrooms longer than administrators and, as a result, they had more information about the student-teacher relationship. With many students contributing to teachers' evaluations, there was also a greater chance of ensuring that teachers would receive more accurate feedback than those who relied on a single evaluator's visit. With students contributing to evaluations, teachers can only benefit from multiple perspectives. Thus BSAC decided to work on two issues: a policy that advocated for better homework and student involvement in teacher evaluations.

Thus began a long, fierce battle. At the center of our teacher evaluation campaign were the concepts of building relationships and student voice in the classroom.

A decade ago, the idea of students evaluating teachers was revolutionary, even radical. In 2006, BSAC members met with the president of the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) and the superintendent of the Boston Public Schools (BPS). The BTU opposed the initial proposal but the BTU had always been supportive of student voice. This was our opportunity to work together and develop a holistic system. The superintendent suggested BSAC first work on a more modest form of student input in teacher evaluation. …

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