I have never been a fan of student surveys of their teachers. I always looked at the surveys as a way for teens to complain about their teachers. My assumption was that students always wanted the easy way out, that if pushed to challenge themselves, students would resist–and use surveys to blame me, the teacher. I figured students wanted “caring” teachers (read: nice adults who let students do what they want).

Much of this belief was based on the old-school theory that my job is to teach and the student’s job is to learn. If we were to give students the opportunity to express their displeasure at having to work hard at their “job,” what would it prove?

Well, I’ve gotten wiser with age… along with a look at the research on student surveys.

John Hattie, who has done a meta-analysis of the variables that impact student achievement (see my previous post on Hattie), has shown that the relationship between a teacher and student has one of the highest correlations to student achievement. (The only variant higher is feedback.) So, it makes sense to look at these relationships when gauging teachers’ impacts on students. The best way to evaluate the student teacher relationship is through surveys.

Amanda Ripley’s “Why Kids Should Grade Teachers,” which appears in the October issue of The Atlantic, addresses the reliability of teacher evaluations. Harvard economist Thomas Kane, building on the work of his colleague Ronald Ferguson, gave thousands of students teacher surveys and compared the results with test scores and other measures of effectiveness.  What he found was quite startling, especially for one like me who has a jaundiced eye toward the surveys.

The bottom line of the research cited in the article says that “If you ask kids the right questions, they can identify, with uncanny accuracy, their most—and least—effective teachers.” More to the point for me: my initial concern (that students were more concerned about teachers “caring for them” than teaching them) was unfounded. What students want, according to the surveys, are teachers who have control over the classroom and who make it a challenging place.

And now that I look back on my own year-end surveys, I realize something: some of the students who’d complained most vociferously about work load or rigor throughout the course actually said some of the most constructive and positive things about their experiences on the survey.

So, based on the research and my reflection on the key role of student and teacher relationships, I say bring on the surveys. Let’s look at my professional relationship with students so I can evaluate my impact on students. I also support the use of the surveys in my teacher evaluation. Hold me accountable to those variables that I, as a teacher, can control.

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