Are Student Surveys Useful For Assessing Teacher Quality?

Professor Eric M. Camburn of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has published his review of the recent Gates Foundation-sponsored report which declared that data gathered via student surveys provided useful information in assessing teacher effectiveness. In his conclusions, Camburn writes that although collecting student opinion of teaching performance could prove useful, any assertions made by the Gates report regarding links between students’ thoughts on teacher performance and actual teacher performance weren’t supported by the data.

Camburn explains that student surveys provide useful insight into the quality of instruction, and could be a mine of practical ideals and suggestions that are worth putting into practice. He notes, however, that many of the conclusions presented in the Gates report are not critically examined in light of the available evidence.

“Developers of the MET project embrace the idea that multiple measures of teaching effectiveness are needed to represent such a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon. However, in discussing the potential uses of student surveys, this report’s stance is lopsided, placing too much weight on the strengths of student surveys and not enough weight on their weaknesses.”

The Gates report, titled Asking Students about Teaching, asserts that evidence collected from student surveys provide evidence in assessing quality of instruction. It goes on to offer a series of guidelines on how such data could be mined and most effectively used.

Camburn, whose findings were published by the National Education Policy Center and whose review was funded by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, said there’s sparse evidence to support the guidelines and policy recommendations made by the Gates report.

… a major limitation of the report is that the claimed relationship between student survey reports and teacher effectiveness is not supported by the evidence provided. A broader limitation of the report is that many of the findings and conclusions are presented too uncritically and without sufficient justification. Developers of the MET project embrace the idea that multiple measures of teaching effectiveness are needed to represent such a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon. In discussing the potential uses of student surveys, however, this report’s stance is lopsided, placing too much weight on the strengths of student surveys and not enough weight on their weaknesses. A potential concern is that glib implementation of some of the report’s recommendations might result in an unwarranted overconfidence in student survey results.

Camburn points out that the Gates report provides a number of useful suggestions that – apart from failing to be provably useful in assessing teacher effectiveness – could serve to improve instructional quality and allow students to be more honest about their views of their instructors. For example, Camburn praises the suggestion made in the report that students would be more honest in their assessment if they believed that their surveys wouldn’t be viewed either by their teachers or their peers.