The Importance of Student Voice

The following is a guest post by Mark R. Boyer, Assistant Superintendent for Learning, Singapore American School

Student Voice

I was recently approached by a high school student who asked, “In order for student voices to be heard, should student evaluations of teachers be mandatory and used in the teacher’s performance review? Furthermore, is there a way to make sure that student feedback is fair and valid?”

If we truly believe in the value of students to be co-designers in learning and empowered in their learning, shouldn’t we also value their important feedback? If we do value student feedback, then how can we make this meaningful and constructive?

Many schools in the U.S. and internationally are addressing this “controversial issue” with no consensus on a particular approach to pursue. Some schools advocate for student feedback as a “weighted component” on teacher evaluation with other components, some schools provide opportunity for student feedback that is exclusively reviewed by the teacher, and some schools provide opportunity for the teacher to verbally reflect on “themes” within student feedback with one’s supervisor. Many schools simply ignore student feedback as too complicated and untrustworthy.

The most significant recent research on teacher evaluation was initiated in 2009 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and resulted in a 2011 report known as Measures of Effective Teaching (MET). One of the five variables valued by the MET report was “student perceptions of the classroom instructional environment” in which a field-tested instrument (i.e., Tripod Survey) was used.  A finding of the MET report was that there is a significant interdependent relationship among student achievement, classroom observations and feedback by supervisors, and student feedback.

The challenge in all of this, however, is to be clear about the purpose of teacher evaluation so as to guide appropriate selection of tools and processes, and to also understand that contextual needs in one system may be very different for another system. Finally, quality implementation of the right tools and processes is everything. Anything less than quality implementation can have confusing and damaging results.

The downside of ineffective implementation of student feedback can lead to the following:

* students may not appreciate demanding teachers until years later, and may provide premature responses

* students may not be “trained” in how to provide constructive feedback, whereupon responses can be personally and professionally hurtful

* teachers may feel that popularity is most important, and consequently adjust teaching to “win” students

* students may use their own grades to determine how they view their teachers, and perhaps not always take personal responsibility

* a culture of evaluation and judgment may become more prevalent than a culture of mutual respect, trust, and support

Having said this, the quality of the student-teacher relationship is essential to quality teaching and learning. I believe quality feedback is key to growth and improved performance, whether the feedback is as a student, teacher, or administrator. Rather than a “weighted” component on teacher evaluation, I would suggest the following approach for student feedback:

Allow all students throughout the school to provide anonymous survey responses using a few standard questions for their teachers (with appropriate accommodations for elementary students) and perhaps a few questions of particular interest to the teacher, which then becomes a conversation between the teacher and supervisor. This conversation would not be about specific comments, but rather about any predominant themes:

    • What pleased you most from your students’ responses?
    • What surprised you?
    • Are there any changes or adjustments you intend to make as a result of this feedback?

The supervisor’s evaluation of this component is then based on the teacher’s reflective ability to respond to “themes” within student feedback, and the supervisor can also serve as a prompt for any areas deserving further consideration. When effectively implemented, this approach would ensure that student feedback is purposefully heard and valued and that the professional relationship of the teacher and supervisor has further information for reflection and consideration.

In line with the MET report, I think some kind of triangulation of qualitative and quantitative data that utilizes student feedback (with teacher reflection), teacher and/or Professional Learning Community evidence of student learning and growth (with teacher reflection), and supervisor feedback from classroom observations (with teacher reflection) would help to provide a balanced and multi-dimensional approach for more intentionally and comprehensively understanding teaching and learning. There’s certainly considerable development needed in each of these areas, but can be worthy if the focus is on creating a learning-focused school in a trusting and mutually supportive environment where everyone is vested in each other’s growth and success.

Education is a lifelong calling, and it is value-added when there are meaningful processes to help all of us as educators to grow, to build on our relationships, and to continuously reflect and act on ways to improve the quality of learning and opportunities for all students.

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