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Students' online teacher rating is a mixed bag

Saturday, August 30, 2003

By Eleanor Chute, Post-Gazette Education Writer

All things considered, David Helinski is happy with the evaluations some tough critics have given him for his work as principal of Bethel Park High School.

The students' rating: 14 smiley faces and three frowning faces, and some glowing comments, including the assertion that he's "definitely the best thing that could of [sic] happened to BPHS in the last year."

Nor is he troubled by the students who say his rules are "rediculous" [sic] and his announcements are "useless."

"If the kids weren't questioning me about my severity in terms of enforcing rules and so on, I would wonder if I was doing my job well enough," he said.

Helinski and about 70 others at the high school -- nearly all teachers -- are among the 364,421 educators at 20,985 middle through high schools nationwide who have received a total of nearly 2.29 million anonymous ratings on the Internet at www.ratemyteachers.com.

Over the school year, the number of hits on the site grew from 1 million per month in September to more than 12 million a month by May.

The site's popularity -- so popular, in fact, that some schools have blocked students' access at school -- might be that it's the only outlet that some students have to critique their teachers' performance.

As the debate continues throughout the nation about improving teacher quality, the voices of students are seldom heard.

Why is that?

Some adults question whether students have the maturity or the wisdom to judge whether their teachers are good or not.

"It just doesn't work," said Al Fondy, president of the Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers. "A teacher could be very strict, and some [students] don't like that. ... Evaluations are done by professionals."

And even Helinski wonders about the harm that could be done by the Web site.

"There's some rotten stuff on there," he said. "It's interesting, but I think it could go very far to the negative where it could cause some problems."

In just a small number of school districts, students are given a more legitimate opportunity to be part of the teacher-evaluation process.

In January, Mt. Lebanon School District students in kindergarten through 12th grade were asked to answer questions about their teachers and give comments anonymously. In the elementary schools, all pupils each teacher taught were surveyed. In middle and high school, students in only two of a teacher's classes were surveyed.

The answers were compiled at Iowa State University and returned only to the individual teachers. The results this school year, however, will be sent to each teacher and his or her supervisor. A similar system is being used for input from surveys of parents and fellow teachers.

"I'd say that students know a teacher better than anyone else. They're with them day in and day out at least 180 days a year," said William Addy, Mt. Lebanon director of human resources.

The district used questions that could be compared against a national sample. Addy said Mt. Lebanon teachers overall did better than the national average.

Mark McCloskey, Mt. Lebanon teacher union president, said teachers narrowly approved the survey as part of a package aimed at ending a difficult bargaining season.

He said the first year was "bumpy."

"Some students were not really taking it seriously and also were adding comments that were deliberately either attempts to be humorous or injurious to teachers," added McCloskey, saying some commented that a teacher was fat, ugly or wore too much makeup.

"The day the feedback came back, we had a lot of upset teachers. I witnessed no positive results of this feedback."

McCloskey said a committee of teachers and administrators this fall will be working to revise the questions.

Richard Manatt, education professor emeritus at Iowa State who spent decades researching the concept of evaluations by students, said only about 15 to 20 school districts nationwide use his system in a year.

On the surveys, pupils in kindergarten through second grade were asked to put smiley, neutral or frowning faces next to 20 statements, such as "we talk about what we are learning."

Older students put numbers from 0 for "never" to 4 for "almost always" next to statements such as "my teacher explains lessons clearly" for upper elementary, "my teacher treats me with respect" in middle school and "my teacher maintains discipline in our classroom" in high school.

Mt. Lebanon students also are told they can write comments on the back of the paper.

In his research, Manatt found that teachers highly rated by students also had high student achievement. He found that principal ratings, however, "were almost not correlated at all with how much the kid was learning."

He also said he didn't find any relationship between the ratings and the grade the student expected to get.

While there may be some "ups and downs" in responses, enough students are polled that those types of answers "wash out," he said.

He said that as a school uses the form -- which can be custom-made for each district -- the number of comments decrease over the years as teachers start to follow some of the suggestions.

"Frankly, they're seeing some improvement," he said.

From the research, Manatt has noticed some national trends among answers.

"Teachers are doing well until about the sixth or seventh grade," he said. "When the kid becomes an adolescent, things go haywire."

But why? "Some of this, I think, is in general, 'I'm bored with school.' A lot of it is the teachers quit teaching kids and start teaching subjects. They're much less willing to individualize and get to know the kid well enough to motivate the kid.

"Part of it is the huge load. It's a son-of-a-gun to have 172 kids a day."

Manatt said that, statistically speaking, he doesn't trust the sampling on www.ratemyteachers.com or a similar separate site for the college level called www.ratemyprofessors.com. Some teachers are rated by just one or few people.

But, he added, the site is "better than nothing."

But McCloskey called the Web site "shaky," adding, "This is not for the improvement of teachers. This is kind of an open bulletin board."

The teacher-rating Web site was started by Tim and Nancy Davis in California. Tim teaches special education at Bakersfield High School, and his wife teaches accounting at a junior college. The site is owned by them and three college students.

They began with www.ratemydog.com, then www.ratemypet.com, and finally they went with ratemyteachers.com in 2001.

"We didn't put the site up to bash teachers. We put it up to maybe identify certain situations in their classroom where they could improve and make it a usable site for teachers," said Tim Davis.

He said 60 to 65 percent of the comments posted are positive.

Teachers are rated 1 to 5 in three categories: clarity, helpfulness and easiness, but the easiness rating doesn't count in the quality rating. Students also can type in comments.

The anonymous ratings translate into faces smiling, frowning or neutral. If a teacher is popular, the face gets sunglasses.

The comments run the gamut, such as the following:

"We do lots of cool stuff, like watch movies, eat food, fingerpaint or go outside for class. We do everything but learn. It's the greatest!"

This teacher "was the best teacher in the school! He taught more than just school work! He will reign supreme someday. . ."

She "is my favorite teacher ever!! She actually teaches and makes sure that EVERYONE understands. I now want a snake because of her."

For the same teacher, "SHE IS THE WORST TEACHER I HAVE EVER HAD" and "She's Trying Her best. . . Give her a chance. She diserves [sic] so much more respect."

Davis said that if someone using the same computer rates the same teacher more than once, the site automatically eliminates all of those comments.

The site also has a red flag next to each name. The teacher can use that to ask the Web site operators to delete an unfair comment.

In addition, about 1,500 monitors -- called "administrators," who usually are students -- screen comments to see that those that disparage a teacher's appearance, call a teacher names or use foul language are not posted.

John Masslon, a Bethel Park junior who screens comments on the site, said he deletes about one in four comments at the high school.

Davis, a tenured teacher, said, "It basically takes an act of God to get rid of a teacher once they're tenured. I wish all tenured teachers were just wonderful and help the new teachers out.

"A lot of teachers just tend to slide. We're trying to change things like that."


Eleanor Chute can be reached at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

Tomorrow: The road from "A Nation at Risk" to "No Child Left Behind."

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