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Rating Our Teachers

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“Teacher quality” is approaching the status of one of my least favorite phrases.

I’m all for effective teaching, teaching that reaches every student in a classroom—teaching that inspires as well as educates in some defined skill or content area.

Great teaching, we know, teaches students lessons about themselves and their world, lessons that may have little to do with X + Y or metaphors or photosynthesis. Ask a lot of folks about the best teacher they ever had, and quite a few of them won’t even mention someone who is a member of the “teaching profession.” Great teaching, and even most pretty good teaching, is as much about life lessons as academic subject matter, and most people instinctively realize it.

Ever since we all had a chance to study the full ladder of public school “teacher quality” in New York City earlier this year, I’ve been stuck on other equally shoddy and haphazard ways in which students and parents—consumers—have set about systematizing the judgment of teachers.

Five or six years ago we were all stewing over “Rate My Teachers dot com” and its curious, unregulated, and nearly libelous system that allows pretty much anyone to post an anonymous “review” of a teacher on line. When managing things like this was part of my work, I actually found the Rate My Teachers outfit to be fairly responsive to things like removing the names of teachers who had left our school or correcting misspellings, which at least provided minimal accountability, and I marveled at those schools with huge Rate My Teachers databases; I assume that at least for a while some schools tried to maintain quality control of their sites by encouraging all students to use it. I even wonder whether such schools ever discussed the meaning of the RMT categories—“easiness,” “helpfulness,” and “clarity”—or offered guidance to students in how to think about these ostensibly useful and even kid-friendly classifications.

In 2012 we can rate everything from restaurants to eBay transactions to individual airline flights, will-I, nill-I, just by clicking a star or a number or some other clever icon, and of course we can “like” our Facebook friends’ posts and “favorite” their tweets. All of this is offered to us in the name of interactivity, of course, giving us extra power, or at least the illusion of extra power, in the marketplace by adding the data from our individual experiences to the vast collective pool of commerce.

I don’t suppose that teachers can expect to be subject to such ratings any less than cab drivers or the Ukrainian guy selling me a Soviet-era wristwatch, and as long as schools don’t come up with their own clear and consistent ways of evaluating the teachers’ effectiveness, marketplace mechanisms like Rate My Teachers or politically imposed mechanisms like standardized test scores will have to do as a proxy for real quality assessment.

These days I find myself engaged in more and more conversations about assessing teacher effectiveness and building up the quality and reach of teacher evaluation systems to promote real professional growth in independent schools. My ruminations on Rate My Teacher and the ubiquitous “rate this” systems have got me thinking that we will be needing, school by school, to make the ways in which we talk about teacher effectiveness pretty transparent to our students and families, and that we may even have to do the unthinkable: invite their feedback into the system. Because if we don’t invite their feedback—these key customers who are spending BIG money on our services and whose investment is even more emotional than financial—it’s not too hard to imagine some clever 21st-century entrepreneur cooking up a way of rating our teachers, and our schools, that is just as slick and appealing and widespread as using Yelp to rate a dry cleaner or clicking on that middle star to damn an Amazon partner vendor with faint praise.

It will come, this system, and I recommend that we all start thinking about how to get out ahead of its impact by starting right now to have those frank and open discussions of what effective teaching is, not just from the standpoint of an observing administrator sitting in the back of a room or making a pay-raise calculation, but from the perspectives of our students and even their parents and guardians. (And, incidentally, if we have marketed our schools properly, their perspectives should be deeply informed by our the missions and values we espouse.)

To some this may sound like a living hell, or a kind of craven surrender to the most crass forces of the marketplace, but I think there could be an opportunity here: Why shouldn’t we be engaging all of our constituents in conversations about what effective teaching and learning means? If we’re going to be living in a world in which “giving feedback”—the marketplace euphemism for rating our everything—is a constant (and we are living in this world), should we not be educating our students (and ourselves) in the responsible, civically affirmative, application of this power? And let’s not forget to include the life lessons that our students so remember and so cherish as part of the teaching and learning that goes on and that should be acknowledged as significant.

We could have our cake and eat it, too. Imagine a school where the meaning of great teaching is clear, where the whole culture is focused on helping each teacher achieve the highest level of professional and personal efficacy, and where that goal is understood and celebrated by everyone—a school that is all about great teaching and where conversations about great teaching infuse school life at every level and elevate the meaning of learning to a whole new level.

Isn’t every school really supposed to be about this?

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