Student voice: ‘It’s not a popularity contest’

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    Eighth-grade student Abbi Gullett writes an informative piece about irony during Michelle Devine's language arts class at North Washington Elementary School (Washington County). Last year students filled out a survey and revealed that most found Devine’s class challenging but didn’t feel like they had a lot of choice.
    Eighth-grade student Abbi Gullett writes an informative piece about irony during Michelle Devine’s language arts class at North Washington Elementary School (Washington County). Last year students filled out a survey and revealed that most found Devine’s class challenging but didn’t feel like they had a lot of choice.
    Photo by Amy Wallot, Feb. 11, 2013

    The Kentucky Department of Education, along with several partners and more than 50 school districts, is in the third year of a four-year plan to develop the Professional Growth and Effectiveness System (PGES). Schools statewide will pilot the new system in the 2013-14 school year, with full implementation scheduled for 2014-15. This is the fourth in a series of stories that will examine different aspects of the proposed system.

    By Matthew Tungate
    matthew.tungate@education.ky.gov

    Teacher Michelle Devine got a clear picture of what her students thought of her teaching when she surveyed a class last year: “I’m boring and I’m bossy,” the 17-year teaching veteran laughed.

    Devine, an 8th-grade English/language arts teacher at North Washington Elementary School (Washington County), gave her students the survey as part of the field test for the proposed Professional Growth and Effectiveness System (PGES). Students rated her across nearly 90 questions, and they told her that she didn’t give them enough choice in the class and she didn’t keep their attention, she said.

    However, she thinks the way the questions were worded may have misled her students a little. For instance, one question asked if students get to decide how activities are done.

    “No, I don’t let them decide how the activities are ‘done.’ That’s my job to plan the activities,” Devine said.

    And while a high number of students agreed they got bored in her class, more than 50 percent said she makes learning enjoyable.

    Still, that didn’t stop Devine from making changes in her practice this school year based on student survey results. For instance, she is emphasizing letting students know when she is giving them a choice, such as on how to do an assignment or project.

    On a positive note, Devine said students validated her by answering that they found her class challenging and they felt they were allowed to ask questions and make mistakes, even after she implemented more rigor.

    Devine said she is excited for her students to take the survey again this year to see if more students find her engaging and feel they have more choice in the class, yet still find the class challenging.

    “If a student feels safe, if a student feels challenged, if a student feels like they can ask questions, if they are engaged, if they have that relationship with their teacher, then they’re going to achieve,” she said. “I just think this survey is a good way for me to see how that’s all coming together. Am I creating that environment for my students? Are there areas in that classroom environment that I need to improve to get these kids to achieve at the level they need to be achieving at?”

    This month, teachers in 54 districts will give students a streamlined version of the Tripod survey used in the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project, which Kentucky has been using as a model for the PGES. The Kentucky Student Perception Survey includes 22 questions for grades 3-5 and 25 questions for grades 6-12 that most directly correlate with student achievement, according to Cathy White, manager of the Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Branch of the Kentucky Department of Education.

    White said the surveys collect information on  students’ perceptions of three areas relative to their teacher: content knowledge or professional learning; pedagogical skill; and relationships with students.

    “Teaching begins with what a teacher knows. Teaching is then how well is a teacher able to take what he or she  knows and use highly-effective teaching strategies, or instructional skills, and deliver it in such a way to engage students in high-quality learning experiences. We know that highly effective teachers develop positive rapport with students to create a culture and a climate of trust where students feel comfortable to learn,” she said.

    Student perception, or student voice as it is called in the PGES, is one of the proposed multiple measures in the system. Like the other measures, it is a way for teachers to look at their professional practice and decide what they are doing well and what they can improve, White said.

    “A major focus of the PGES is the many different ways specific information and support can be provided around teacher practice. Student voice is one more source of feedback from a different perspective,” she said.

    After students take the computerized survey, their answers are aggregated and teachers can see results for each question. Student identities are not revealed. The results are displayed in the Educator Development Suite in the Continuous Instructional Improvement Technology System (CIITS). All of the questions are aligned to the Kentucky Framework for Teaching. An alignment of PD 360 resources is available so teachers can have access to specific materials to address issues raised in the survey, White said.

    Amanda Mattingly, Devine’s principal at North Washington Elementary, said there is great power in knowing and understanding students’ perception of the instruction they are receiving.

    “So often, we stay ‘too busy’ in our daily work to stop long enough to really get a good gauge of how students view our classroom and the instructional practices that take place within our classroom,” she said. “Educators often become frustrated in the struggle to specifically pinpoint what is working and what is not in their instruction. Who better to ask than the ones who are on the receiving end daily of all our work and planning?  Allowing for student voice can help to find some of those answers if done so in a responsible and meaningful way.”

    Having participated in the survey, Devine said she believes teachers will try to make changes in their practice based on the results.

    “Don’t be afraid of it. It’s a perception. It’s another tool for professional growth, and it’s not personal,” she said.

    Some teachers are not so sure. Byron Risner, a social studies teacher at Magoffin County High School, said he is concerned that students may equate teacher quality with the grade they’re getting.

    “It puts a lot of power in students’ hands,” he said.

    Devine said she was concerned about that at first, too. So if she gave students homework or had to write up a student the day before the survey, would they give her bad marks, she wondered.

    “It wasn’t like that at all,” she said. “It’s not a popularity contest.”

    The questions were very neutral, Devine said. For example, students are asked to respond to the statement, “Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.”

    “It either does or it doesn’t,” Devine said. “That doesn’t have anything to do with whether they like me or not,” she said. “The way the questions are worded, even if the student is angry with you, they’re not going to be able to show their anger through the whole thing.”

    White said research shows that students give an accurate picture of their teachers when surveyed.

    “Research has not shown that students are retaliatory. Overall, students are very, very honest about how teachers are teaching in our classrooms,” she said. “It really isn’t a popularity contest at all. It really gives students an opportunity to give teachers feedback on exactly how they see teaching and learning in the classroom, and it helps teachers have a different perspective and to see the classroom through a different lens.”

    Students know good teachers and research bears that out

    According to the MET study, “Analysis by the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project finds that teachers’ student survey results are predictive of student achievement gains.” The MET project also found student surveys produced more consistent results than classroom observations or achievement gain measures.

    But that’s nothing new to teachers. Jennifer Howard, a mathematics teacher at Magoffin County High, said her 18 year experience in the classroom shows that students know who challenges them and in whose classes they learn.

    “Our students are our customers. If our customers aren’t satisfied, then we may need to make some adjustments,” she said.

    Dot Perkins, superintendent of the Gallatin County school district, agreed.

    “Kids can tell you who’s an effective teacher and who’s not,” she said.

    White said the Kentucky Board of Education will have to decide how much weight, if any, student voice receives in the PGES.

    Mattingly said teachers need to remember that student voice is one piece of information to consider when determining teacher effectiveness. The PGES is committed to providing data through multiple measures to discuss teacher effectiveness and professional growth, she said.

    “I believe the true intent of the system is professional growth,” Mattingly said. “I have been able to see how the student voice piece can be very beneficial in the process of professional growth.”

    MORE INFO …
    Cathy White, teacherleader@education.ky.gov, (502) 564-1479

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