News and Tribune

April 14, 2014

HAYDEN: Want better teacher ratings? Ask the kids

By MAUREEN HAYDEN
Indiana columnist

INDIANAPOLIS — The state may be back where it started, encumbered with a flawed teacher grading system, a year after implementing what were meant to be tough new standards.

That was the general consensus of the State Board of Education days after teacher evaluation data were released last week. Of 50,000 public school teachers graded by their principals, less than one-half of 1 percent were deemed “ineffective.”

Almost everyone else — 97 percent — was considered good or good enough.

“Clearly the system failed,” said board member Gordon Hendry, before calling for a new way to get more accurate results.

Much of the criticism focused on the law that mandated a new evaluation system. It was meant to tie teacher pay to performance rather than tenure - a sweeping change for Indiana. But, as in the past, the law let local school districts pick their own rating models.

As a result, weight given to student test scores or the observations of principals ranged wildly. Some districts gave most teachers the highest mark of “highly effective.” Almost two-dozen districts couldn’t find a single teacher who fit into that category.

Joe Gramelspacher isn’t an education policy maker but a teacher who’s given evaluation systems a lot of thought. An Indianapolis native, he started his career in a Colorado district that helped pioneer the idea of performance pay.

Missing from Indiana’s metrics and most models, he argues, are the opinions of students.

“No one spends more time watching teachers at work than their students,” said Gramelspacher, who majored in economics at Indiana University and came to teaching through the Teach for America program. “Who’s in a better position to evaluate how we’re doing?”

Gramelspacher, who works at an inner-city Indianapolis school, is borrowing on work done by Harvard University economist Ronald Ferguson.

More than a decade ago, Ferguson started researching the use of classroom surveys to measure student engagement. He was looking for a way to narrow the race-based achievement gap. He ended up with a finely tuned survey of student perception that became a framework for incorporating student feedback into teacher evaluations.

Gramelspacher said he was surprised the first time he used a Ferguson-inspired survey of his teaching methods.

“They were brutally honest” he said of his students. “But it helped.”

The students were better observers of his teaching than his school principal, who’d visited his classroom an average of once a month, he found.

“They knew my strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “They pointed out weaknesses I didn’t know I had.”

He took their input to heart, changed some techniques, and now gives himself a higher grade.

A handful of school districts around the country are incorporating sophisticated student surveys into teacher evaluations, and they’re using the results to craft plans to help teachers improve. In doing so, they improve student results.

Gramelspacher is a true believer in student feedback. But he’s met plenty of skeptics, he said, especially among educators who think students are too immature, biased or just too mean to render a fair evaluation.

“Who do you serve as a teacher? You serve your students,” he said. “If you don’t value your students’ feedback, one, you’re not going to be a very good teacher, and two, maybe you’re in the wrong profession.

“If you don’t want to hear from your customers, then you’re in the wrong business.”

— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MaureenHayden.