Detroit board OKs student input on teacher evaluations, but reduces its impact

The Detroit school board approved a plan to have student survey results factor into some teacher evaluations, but the feedback from children will carry less weight than district officials had intended.

Even with that change, union officials voiced opposition, and so did some teachers at a school board meeting Tuesday night.

The feedback from students in grades 3-12 is among the features of a new teacher evaluation system, called Thrive for Teachers, that the Detroit Public Schools Community District will begin using during the 2020-21 school year.

When the plan was first presented to board members last month, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the survey results would count towards 10% of a teacher’s evaluation. Another 40% will be based on the amount of improvement students have on standardized exams, with 40% based on classroom observations and 10% based on teachers’ commitment to the school community.

Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, vice president of the board, raised concerns Tuesday night and successfully got the student input lowered to 5%. it was unclear how the change would affect the weight distribution for the other categories.

Peterson-Mayberry said she tested the survey questions on several young relatives who are in grades 3-5.

“It required a lot of engagement for them to really understand what it was I was trying to get at with them,” Peterson-Mayberry said. 

She said she’s concerned about bias and believes that 10% was too much weight.

“I just think we should put the best product forward if you’re talking about a teacher being evaluated in the space they’re being held accountable for.”

Vitti said the surveys would be more about asking students about their experiences in the classroom, and not about asking them to weigh in as experts on teaching.

“We often talk about honoring student voice,” Vitti said. “This is just a way to empower students to give feedback.”

Research has found that student survey results can generally predict student performance. But at least one study found that teachers who are good at raising test scores are worse at making kids happy in class.

Teachers who spoke during the public comment period of Tuesday’s meeting said they want and value feedback from students. But they questioned whether that feedback should factor into their evaluations.

“They’re not going to be genuine or authentic,” said Nicole Conaway, a teacher at Communication & Media Arts High School. “It’s to create a veneer of acting like you’re collecting voices.”

Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, also spoke in opposition, saying that having student survey results included in an evaluation  that affects a teacher’s career is unfair. 

“This is … a process that hasn’t been tested,” Martin said.