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Teacher Focus: Rachel Niederman Considers Student Surveys a Vital Tool

February 06, 2013

Rachel Niederman, a teacher at the Aspire College California College Preparatory Academy in Berkeley, sometimes feels that she tries to pack too much into each 100-minute English class. But her students seem to think otherwise.

On a student survey she gave her 10th and 11th graders in December, they rated her a 2.9 out of 4 on “Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.” By contrast, the students gave her a 3.7 for respecting them and 3.6 for developing a safe and supportive climate for learning.

Like teachers across the country, Niederman had been observed plenty of times by principals and other adults, yet she had not always heard specifically about those strengths and weaknesses. To her, student surveys are a crucial part of the teacher evaluation toolbox. “If you only get student perceptions, you are missing the degree to which they are excelling in subject matter,” she says. “But if you’re only using test scores, you’re missing how excited they are about the subject, how well they write and express themselves.”

Enthusiasm is growing for student surveys as a reliable, actionable measure of teacher effectiveness based, in part, on results from the Measures of Effective Teaching study. The project found that student surveys provide one valid, reliable lens on teaching. Beginning in the 2013-14 school year, Aspire Public Schools, which runs 34 charter schools in California, will make student surveys a component of all teachers’ evaluations, along with principal and peer observations and student test scores. Students in Memphis, TN; Washington, D.C.; Denver, CO; Hillsborough County, FL; and other districts are also weighing in about their teachers through surveys.

The Aspire student survey consists of 15 items. Many, such as “My teacher asks us questions to make sure we understand,” draw from the work of Harvard education economist Ronald Ferguson, who presented his approach to student surveys, called Tripod, at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Teaching is Learning symposium held in Phoenix earlier this month.

Niederman has always been a proponent of student surveys: In 2011-12, when she was still a teacher in training, she decided on her own volition to give them to her students. She devised the surveys herself, so they did not provide quantifiable data as they do now—but she still received valuable feedback. Students said that her assignments were not always clear and that they didn’t always feel challenged, which prompted her to spend the last part of each class discussing the homework and to expect higher-quality work from students.

The changes paid off: Niederman’s most recent student survey gives her strong scores for “I am learning new things in this class” and “My teacher lets us know when we are doing a good job of following expectations.” As for the challenges identified in December, keeping students busy and not wasting time, Niederman is considering more clearly defining roles for students when they work in groups and setting strict timelines for activities. She looks forward to hearing the difference her efforts made when she gives the next survey at year’s end.  

“Students observe us more than anyone, even our principal,” she says. “They see us when we get frustrated and overwhelmed, and they see us when we teach an amazing lesson no one else sees. The students know when they’re frustrated or bored out of their minds—something an observer might not pick up if the students are sitting up straight and appearing to listen just because they’re afraid of getting in trouble.”

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