Faculty ResearcherRonald Ferguson, Senior Lecturer in Education and Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Graduate School of EducationPaper Title
Can Student Surveys Measure Teaching Quality?
The education landscape is dotted with metrics for evaluating teacher and student performance — from standardized test scores to course passage rates, from students’ attendance to teachers’ knowledge. But, unlike in colleges and universities, student feedback is rarely sought as part of the improvement effort in primary and secondary schools.
"One impediment has been the doubt that students can provide valid and reliable responses about the quality of the teaching that they experience," writes Ronald Ferguson, senior lecturer in education and public policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard Kennedy School, in "Can Student Surveys Measure Teaching Quality?" That doubt should be put to rest, he argues.
"We are learning," writes Ferguson, also the faculty director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, "that well-constructed classroom-level student surveys are a low burden and high-potential mechanism for incorporating students’ voices in massive numbers into our efforts to improve teaching and learning."
He cautions against the ever-present danger of measurement errors, or of teachers altering their behavior during a measurement period. "The way forward for teacher evaluation and support," he stresses, "should be ‘multiple measures, multiple times, over multiple years.’"
Student surveys have shown that they deserve to be one of those measures, he argues. Ferguson developed student surveys as part of the Tripod Project for School Improvement — which addresses teachers’ content knowledge, pedagogic skill, and relationship skills — over more than a decade of work. Initially, Ferguson worked with k–12 teachers and administrators in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and with 15 member districts of the Minority Student Achievement Network. Since 2005 he has developed the surveys for use both around the nation and abroad, and over one million surveys have been administered. The student surveys measure instructional quality using seven categories, ranging from a teacher’s control of the classroom, to her or his ability to challenge students, to whether he or she is able to create a caring and emotionally safe environment for students to learn in.
The Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project launched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, examines value-added test score gains, knowledge tests, and observational protocols, among other measures. It also uses Ferguson’s Tripod survey to measure student perception.
Reports from the met Project show that student responses are "valid and reliable predictors of learning in mathematics and English language arts," Ferguson writes.
One report compared learning gains with students’ evaluation of teachers, analyzing the data in various ways — for example, correlating survey responses with learning gains in other sections taught by the teacher in the same year or in previous years. "In each analysis, students of math teachers with Tripod survey rankings in the top quarter learned the equivalent of four to five more months per year, on average, than students of teachers with survey rankings in the bottom quarter," Ferguson explains. Gains in language arts were about half as large.
The reports also showed that the highest-achieving classrooms are "respectful and orderly environments, with students who stay busy and learn to correct their mistakes from a teacher who explains difficult things clearly."
"No one survey instrument or observational protocol should have high stakes for teachers if used alone or for only a single deployment," Ferguson concludes. "But students know good instruction when they experience it as well as when they do not."
—by Robert O'Neill