The Value of Surveying Students

by Reihan Salam

I very much enjoyed Amanda Ripley’s article on using the local knowledge of students to gauge the effectiveness of teachers. The following will give you an indication of its main thrust:

Of the 36 items included in the Gates Foundation study, the five that most correlated with student learning were very straightforward:

1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.

2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.

3. Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.

4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.

5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.

When Ferguson and Kane shared these five statements at conferences, teachers were surprised. They had typically thought it most important to care about kids, but what mattered more, according to the study, was whether teachers had control over the classroom and made it a challenging place to be. As most of us remember from our own school days, those two conditions did not always coexist: some teachers had high levels of control, but low levels of rigor.

Ripley’s article is well worth reading. It reminded me of a John Tierney column published in March of 2000 on perceptions of the police:

The shooting of Patrick Dorismond on Thursday, like the shooting of Amadou Diallo last year, is a horrible but unrepresentative event. The police have not become more trigger-happy under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (quite the reverse: they have been shooting less). What they have become is more likely to accost innocent men on the street, especially black and Hispanic men.

Those nonviolent encounters have led to widespread anger and calls for the federal government to oversee the department, but adding an extra layer of unelected bureaucrats is a cumbersome strategy. There is a more direct way to ease tensions on the street — require police officers to give a receipt to any citizen they stop or interrogate.

What would be the point of issuing these receipts?

’’Receipts would make it easier for officers to be monitored by citizens as well as their superiors,’’ said Dr. Stephen D. Mastrofski, director of the administration of justice program at George Mason University. ‘’A department could tell, for instance, if one officer is making tons of stops and not producing anything.’’

THE records would also enable independent monitors to do follow-up interviews with a cross section of citizens who had been stopped by the police. The result would be a fairer picture of police behavior than anyone gets from the current system, which pits police self-reports of virtue against the worst horror stories that their critics can dredge up.

’’This sort of monitoring happens all the time in the private sector,’’ Dr. Mastrofski said. ‘’The police need to act like businesses that monitor their interactions with clients and how their clients feel about the services they receive. It’s in the interest of the police to have the public on their side.’’

In a very literal and straightforward way, these police receipts would reassure citizens that providers of public services will be held accountable for their performance. Surveys of students strike me as a wise measure on the same grounds: they serve as a reminder that while teachers are entitled to deference from students, students deserve to be treated with respect and to have some recourse if they are faced with an ineffective teacher. It is also true that student surveys can give teachers useful feedback that they can use to improve their performance — or at least to identify teachers who are either disinterested in or incapable of doing so.

The use of monitoring of this kind is resented by many teachers, just as many police officers resent it when civilians record them in the course of making arrests. What I can understand is the concern that recordings will be manipulated or taken out of context, which is an entirely legitimate concern. But I don’t think this concern applies to receipts for encounters with the police or student surveys of teachers or even video recordings of classroom instruction that can be used by teachers and administrators — but kept within the school — to gauge classroom management skills, etc. Indeed, this kind of monitoring can protect teachers from unruly students or irresponsible accusations.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.