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.

Image: Dell’s Official Photo Page CC

A Landscape of Stumbling Blocks or Stepping Stones?

Stepping Stones by Vicki 13Our varied perspectives on gun control, safety, and equity will be thrown into stark contrast as we process the recent tragic events in Newtown. Our discourses, dialogues and debates will not be simple or easy, but they will be essential and necessary to not only heal from this tragedy, but to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

In a recent TEDx Talk, Superintendent of Albemarle County, VA, Dr. Pamela Moran, suggested the audience look up the work of D.W. Meinig, the Maxwell Research Professor Emeritus of Geography at Syracuse University. His piece, “The Beholding Eye: Ten Versions of the Same Scene,” offers a apropos frame for remembering what is most common among us all: That we are all different.

He sets the stage as such:

Take a small but varied company to any convenient viewing place overlooking some portion of city and countryside and have each, in turn, describe the “landscape” (that “stretch of country as seen from a single point,” as the dictionary defines it), to detail what it is composed of and say something about the “meaning” of what can be seen. It will soon be apparent that even though we gather together and look in the same direction at the same instant, we will not – we cannot – see the same landscape. We may certainly agree that we will see many of the same elements – houses, roads, trees, hills – in terms of such denotations as number, form, dimension, and color, but such facts take on meaning only through association; they must be fitted together according to some coherent body of ideas. Thus we confront the central problem: any landscape is composed not only of what lies before our eyes but what lies within our heads. (emphasis mine)

While he goes on to describe ten possible frames of perspective that viewers might impose on the landscape (such as a Problem, a Habitat, a System, etc), the exercise is an apt metaphor for thinking about Newtown. As we, from our varying experiences, understandings, knowings, and assumptions, “view” the events of last Friday, we see them not just with our eyes, but with “what lies within our heads”, and, I might add, within our hearts.

It is herein where our differences become either stumbling blocks or stepping stones.

Do we default to ideology or suspend opinion/judgment long enough to both listen AND hear another point of view? Do we focus on a single event or on a larger scope of violent injustices that endanger children (often children of color, which go largely unreported) in cities across our nation on a daily basis? Will our mosaic of learned wisdoms become a quilt of solutions or will they remain fractured fragments of understanding whose fabrics and patterns are too eclectic to come together?

While I do not know the answers to those questions, I do know that within learning communities, differences are the norm. Or, perhaps stated another way: What is “normal” is variation. When leveraged well, this normed diversity is a strength — a uniter, not a divider.

Dr. Meinig closes with this:

Ten landscapes do not exhaust the possibilities of such a scene, but they do suggest something of the complexities of the topic. Identification of these different bases for the variations in interpretations of what we see is a step toward more effective communication. For those of us who are convinced that landscapes mirror and landscapes matter, that they tell us much about the values we hold and at the same time affect the quality of the lives we lead there is ever the need for wider conversations about ideas and impressions and concerns relating to the landscapes we share.

If the events in Newtown are of any indication (especially against backdrop of the challenges of our urban districts and our failure to close the racial achievement gap), “more effective communication” is at the heart of what we need as a nation to bring about and sustain more transformative learning communities. And, if I may dream so large, bring about peace and equity across this land.

Image: Vicki 13, flickr

For those of you interested, I highly recommend the below TEDx Talk by Dr. Pamela Moran.

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