Making the Grade

A student council president proposes instituting student evaluations of teachers at the end of courses. Not surprisingly, this independently-minded high school faculty raises concerns about the legitimacy of student evaluations.

Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.
-George Bernard Shaw

Cousteau High School

Rex Hall felt like he was about to burst. As one sponsor of the Cousteau High School student council, he found himself hard-pressed to sit quietly listening to the students during the council meeting.

Student council president Adam Shenk, a senior, sat on a stool in front of the room and led a discussion with the 27 class representatives. It was not that Rex was uncomfortable hearing student voices in the room—he encouraged students to speak out in his English classes—what frustrated him was what he was hearing students not say. Students on the council seemed perpetually unwilling to make decisions that affected their education, their school, he thought. But Rex had vowed since the start of the year that he would not tell students what they needed to decide. It was the student council, after all.

But the Christmas food drive was over, and since the plans for the Homecoming dance had been completed, the student council had seemed adrift, without purpose. Rex had seen it before: the council would stagger through the rest of the winter, organize the spring elections, and start planning for Homecoming all over again.

The council’s discussion today was tied up in what sort of favors to buy for the teaching staff during American Education Week — pencils or plastic rulers.

Across the room Rex could see his co-sponsor, Ruth Bach, a computer science teacher. She grinned and shook her head, amused by Rex’s squirms.

Ruth and Rex talked with Adam the council president after the meeting.

“You need to think about the business of this school and what role the student council should play in it,” Rex said. “‘Student council president’ shouldn’t be a role you assume only on club day. This is the role you’ve been chosen to play every school day.”

“We’re working on the new sign for the front of the school…” Adam started.

“The admin’s just throwing you a bone. The sign will be a nice addition, sure, but what is the council doing for the students?” Rex countered.

“OK. OK. Let me think about it,” Adam said smiling as he headed for the door. “I’ll cook up something that will give this group purpose.”

“You’re really challenging Adam,” Ruth said to Rex, “but you’ve probably got the right idea. Eagle Scout, honor student, a senior — a general, all-around wonder-kid. If any student could rise to your challenge, it would be Adam.”

“I hope so,” Rex hollered at her as his next class of students came pouring in, a group of freshmen with mixed ability levels. Two years ago the school had done away with assigning students to classes made up entirely of students of similar ability. Every English class included students of a wide array of ability, experience, and motivation; students who were formerly in the advanced sections were now grouped with students who still read stories from the upper-elementary reading books. Rex and the other teachers in the English department continued to refine their instruction to include challenges for all students in their classes.

“Are we reading out loud today, Mr. Hall?” asked Sam, ambling into the classroom. He immediately began helping Rex push desks into the position for cooperative learning teams, while Rex described the activity that the class would be working on.

Before this year, Sam had been strictly a special education student. Now, Sam was in his first regular education English class in high school, and he had been mainstreamed into two other classes, as well. Sam’s progress in this classroom impressed both Rex and Sam’s resource teacher, Judy Mills. Judy had gone over Sam’s IEP with Rex which called for special grading considerations for Sam on vocabulary quizzes; this meant simply that after Sam filled out his quiz each Friday, Rex would subtract only 3 points for the mistakes instead of the 5 points he subtracted for everyone else. Rex had also carried the special considerations over to all of Sam’s assignments, aiming to grade Sam for the quality of his thinking, not only the knowledge he had acquired. Sam worked hard every day and was pleased about a good grade. Sam was making noticeable social adjustments participating in his learning team and at times participating in whole-class discussions. He practiced his reading privately with Judy, and had shown some progress in doing all his writing assignments on a word processor.

Lynn

Just then, one of Sam’s learning-teammates, Lynn, bustled into the room. In terms of ability, Lynn occupied the other end of the spectrum from Sam—very capable, but often not willing to do the work. “Hey, Lynn,” said Sam.

“Good morning, Lynn,” Rex said to Lynn, and watched her walk by without speaking. Rex was not surprised at the response he received from this student. Lynn Morrow’s attitude about the class ran hot and cold. She was the most vocal student regarding how much she enjoyed the class discussion about contemporary life on Native American reservations. On other days it was not surprising to have Lynn complain the loudest about the difficulty of an assignment. Rex made it a point to keep the lines of communication open with her, whatever her mood. He wanted her to know that it was all right to be involved about decisions regarding her own education.

As the bell rang, Rex thanked Sam for his help putting the desks into place and watched Sam search for the classwork he had polished up during his resource period with Judy.

“All right, folks, while you’re turning in your homework to your team captains…” Rex began.

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.
John Stuart Mill
“Well, Mr. Hall. I did it.” Adam came bounding up to Rex in the hall after school.

“Be careful what you confess to,” Rex quipped. “What’s up?”

“I decided on a project that student council could sponsor that will really make a difference to students.”

“What’s the project?”

“I thought we could survey all the students in the school and come up with student evaluations for every course that is taught here. I have some friends in college who use the same kinds of surveys to pick professors and courses each semester. We could print our results in time for everybody to use in their course selections for next year.”

“That means you’ll have to get started right away, but before you can do anything you’ll have to get approval from Mr. Jackson. He’ll want a copy of the survey first, so the council better get their questions and format done as soon as possible.”

“We’re meeting in your room right now to get organized. Can you be there?”

Rex shook his head. “Nope, I’m on my way to a departmental meeting. Why don’t you leave me a copy of what you’ve decided and we’ll talk tomorrow.”

On his way down the hall, Rex fell in stride with the principal, Mr. Jackson, leaving the computer lab. “I just met with Adam from the Student Council, and he’s come up with a great idea for a project. He wants the council to conduct a student survey rating teachers and courses.”

Calvin Jackson shook his head and chuckled. “I just don’t see that happening. Can you imagine the teacher response?”

Rex hadn’t really considered that, but what could be so awful about a survey? “It’ll be a great way to make kids feel like their ideas really do count. I told them that you would have to approve all the questions anyway, and these are good kids. I think we might all learn something from the kinds of questions they ask � and how the student body responds.”

“Well, put it in my box when it’s done. I’ll look it over, but you shouldn’t expect approval.”

Jackson had been principal at Cousteau High School for only a year-and-a-half, and he did not spend much time sitting behind his desk. Instead, he had become a fixture in classrooms throughout the school. He attended all the PTA meetings, athletic contests, student concerts, and honor society inductions. He seemed to enjoy most greeting parents at these functions and being able to give them eyewitness accounts of what their son or daughter had been studying in class that week.

Enthusiasm for Mr. Jackson’s “classroom patrol” was not unanimous, however. As Rex arrived at the departmental meeting two minutes late, his department head, Antonia Miller, just finished the reading of Mr. Jackson’s class observation schedule for the coming month.

Jo Garrett rolled her eyes. “Again? That’s the fourth time already this semester.”

Victor Black nodded in agreement. “Why can’t Calvin Jackson keep his nose out of my classroom?” he asked quietly.

Rex considered Antonia to be a diplomatic leader. She seemed aware of the fine line she walked between dealing with departmental concerns as an English teacher and supporting the policies of the school administration. Regarding Mr. Jackson’s visits, she ignored the teachers’ comments.

Instead, she spoke quickly above the dissenters, directing the group’s attention toward planning for the intradepartmental unit scheduled to begin in 2 weeks. Some of the English teachers had hatched a plan at the start of the year to teach a topic together on which the whole department could focus intently. In the ensuing months, the departmental members had impressed themselves with their ability to set and to work toward a unified goal. The teachers devised a structure that allowed all students in the school to rotate through the various classrooms of most of the teachers in the department. Different teachers would take students through different aspects of a topic. The department also saw it as a way to recruit students to the electives that they taught. Students would be signing-up for next year’s courses later in the spring.

Antonia

In order to plan their unit, the teachers had chosen a topic they felt was broad and relevant enough to be approached in a variety of ways that would appeal to students. The topic they chose was Conservation of Natural Resources. The construction of a new middle school on the lot adjoining the Cousteau High had resulted in the clear-cutting of a large number of trees on the school’s forested property. The students could see the newly-shorn area as they arrived in the parking lot each day, so the natural resource issue was one that was timely.

Most of the English teachers threw into the pot his or her own preference for approaching the subject of conservation, and the resulting list of course offerings was quite varied. Some foreign language teachers also volunteered to contact their friends abroad to furnish reports on the destruction of rain forests. Antonia distributed copies of the finalized assignment list to the teachers.

See the teachers’ assignments for the unit below:

Throughout the planning stages for the unit, a pattern had developed, and now the gathered teachers would play their roles in the pattern like parts in a drama. Today, as usual, Laureen Biggs cleared her throat, and Bruce Wilkerson said, “Madame Chairman, I must protest.” The other teachers had stopped suppressing their groans last month. “I cannot find Edward Abbey or Annie Dillard on the list of authors that the school system has asked us to cover,” Bruce continued. He flapped the well-creased pages of the county’s standards of learning like a low-flying bird above the desktop. “And the county soil and water conservation plans aren’t on the list either,” Laureen added.

“Can’t you all see this is something that we’re really excited about?” said Jo. “We’re really going to be teaching together here.”

Antonia waved Jo off. Antonia had honored Bruce and Laureen’s request to be excluded from teaching in the unit. Her patience for their goading was wearing thin. “Again, I appreciate your input. I’ll note it to Mr. Jackson if he asks me,” she said.

“Mr. Jackson. The school board. Whoever,” said Bruce. “The board may want to know if we’re actually teaching the content they’ve asked us to teach.”

Rex countered, “You know we’ll cover the content, Bruce. We always do. But this high-interest unit may help us finally engage some kids with reading and writing and ideas that we haven’t already reached.”

“Will your students be ready for my class next year, Rex?” asked Laureen. “I think this department just can’t afford the time to water down its content.”

Laureen knew well which buttons to push to rile this group, but before anyone could reply, Antonia raised her arms: “OK, we’ve been over this ground before. If no one has any questions about their teaching assignments for the unit, we’ll move on.”

The Tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.
Montesquieu
Rex was excited about the possibilities for this meeting. He had even asked a couple of students who he felt were dissatisfied in his own classes to attend. He had told the often-vocal Lynn Morrow she should stop by, but she continued on her way, casting a “Maybe” over her shoulder as she left the room.

But Rex did not see Lynn among the 40 or so students who were wedging themselves into room 117. Adam had assembled what he was calling “a teacher-grading task force.” The group was largely student council representatives, but also some random students showed up who were intrigued by Adam’s invitation on the PA system: “If you feel like you’ve got something to say about the way you’re taught, stop by room 117 after school.”

There were several faces Rex could not match with names, but he’d seen most of them around the halls.

As the students’ president, Adam’s goal for today’s meeting was to begin compiling a list of questions that would make up the student survey. Adam had been impressive with his level of preparation: he had brought in a copy of his friend’s rating of professors that was used at the university; he had found a local publishing company to donate paper for copying the results; he had met with his officers to compile answers to a list of questions Ruth and Rex had devised for them, questions such as: “What are your goals with the survey? How will you carry it out? How will you deliver it to students?” Most impressively, he had even talked to Mr. Jackson and gotten preliminary approval for conducting the survey.

And now as the students gathered he had scrawled the question “What is important about our education?” on the board.

Adam

Rex lingered a moment longer to survey the scene, then rose to leave.

“Where are you going, Mr. Hall?” Adam asked. “You should hang around.”

Rex shook his head and stepped out of the room into an impromptu huddle along the English hallway. Five of his colleagues from the department were gathered discussing the students’ meeting.

“If we only knew what those kids are going to be evaluating us on,” said Mrs. Whittle, her voice almost quivering. Terry Whittle was a veteran teacher who had organized all but one of the county forensics competitions and spelling bees during the past 25 years. She looked to Rex as if he held a secret that could put her fears at ease. Rex wondered if there was something fundamentally wrong with this survey if it was frightening his colleagues. It looked like Mr. Jackson knew what he was talking about when he’d worried about teachers’ reactions.

“Perhaps we should make sure all the students get a look at the county’s standards of learning so they’ll know what they’re supposed to be learning,” said Bruce.

June Styron the newspaper sponsor cut in: “I think you’ll be interested to know, Rex, that the editorial board of the school newspaper opposes the student council survey project. There will be an editorial that says so in the next edition.”

“You’re kidding. I thought those kids would be ‘way into promoting a student voice.”

“Well, they are. But I believe there are several factors at work here. I mean, consider that for a long time the newspaper was the voice of students. I think the newspaper staff sees the student council as a bunch of upstarts trying to make something happen.

“And,” she continued, “I also believe the staffers are taking seriously the credibility a student voice must carry with it. They face this issue with every edition. ‘Who’s going to listen to a kid? What support do I have to provide to give me credibility?’ The newspaper staff does not believe the student council is making those considerations with this survey.”

Nicole Trice spoke up: “As a high school student, I was probably the princess of fickleness. I used to hate Mrs. Pidgeon’s English class. She worked us the hardest, made us read the most. But later on when I was in college, I realized she was actually the one who ended up teaching me the most. I’ll never be the kind of teacher she was, but my teaching and learning have certainly been affected by her. So how valid would my rating of her have been when I was an inexperienced high school student?”

The five teachers awaited Rex’s answers.

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.
Thomas Jefferson
Three days into the intradisciplinary unit, Rex had his own juniors back as they rotated through the population of English teachers at Cousteau High. Rex figured he had seen about two-thirds of the student population so far during the unit. Keeping track of the numbers could be overwhelming, but Rex knew Antonia and some others in the department had spent several days working with the schedules so that all students would encounter each English teacher in a sequence that made sense in their discussion of conservation.

Rex had enjoyed tinkering with his own lesson plan, as well as having a fresh audience to try it on every period. He had been hearing positive comments from students which told him that the department’s effort was paying off.

As Rex circulated from team to team, Mr. Jackson let himself into the room and slid along the wall quietly. He gave Rex a wave—just an informal visit to finish out the last period of the day.

Rex smiled. He hoped the principal would listen in on some of the small groups to hear the observations students had written during their nature hike at the beginning of the block period. Rex had shown them the writing of Henry David Thoreau and Annie Dillard as models, and was sure the students were sharing some good writing of their own.

Suddenly Lynn was beside him clutching two papers.

See Sam’s Paper below:

See Lynn’s paper below:

Rex watched Lynn return Sam’s paper, smile, and rejoin the group discussion. Having no desire to know Mr. Jackson’s response to Lynn’s comments, Rex avoided glancing at the principal for the rest of the period.

Teachers

The buzz emanating from the teachers’ mail room was much louder than Rex was used to hearing after school.

“What’s going on?” he asked Ruth, standing near the door.

“The kids started circulating their survey among some classes after lunch today. For most faculty it was their first look at what the kids came up with.”

The questions being exchanged in frenetic conversations were being uttered too quickly for answers to be formulated. Rex wasn’t surprised at many of the attitudes he heard in snatches from various discussions around the room.

“Will the school board be looking at these ratings?”

“What will this mean at contract time?”

“You know this is all a ploy by Jackson.”

One teacher was reading aloud from the student newspaper editorial opposing the student council’s project.

Another asked, “If no one signs up for a teacher’s classes, what does that teacher do?”

“Do I have to make class more ‘fun’ in order to appear more attractive to students’ ratings?”

“I won’t water down my content.”

Victor Black broke off his small group discussion and came to the doorway where Rex and Ruth were standing. “I have an idea,” he said. “Maybe we should publish a review of students, and see how they’d like that. I’ve got a few choice ratings points of my own to withhold from Adam Shenk.”

“We rate students every grading period,” Ruth piped up. “Their standardized test scores are published in all the newspapers. Our whole business is driven by evaluation.”

“Yes, but their grades are confidential. For all we know these ratings could turn up at a School Board meeting or in the paper!”

Victor, Rex and Ruth

“All I know,” Victor continued, “is that a teacher who has to rely on his students to tell him how to teach shouldn’t be in the classroom.”

“This is the students’ idea,” Ruth said. “Are you saying we should quash notions of student empowerment and go about our business? What are we afraid of?”

Victor walked away smiling, frustrating Ruth by withholding his reply.

“Wow, Ruth,” said Rex, following her into the hall. “I didn’t know you were so passionate about this thing.”

“I guess I’ve caught some of the kids’ enthusiasm,” Ruth said, smiling. “Adam and some others have been coming to my room after school to get my help compiling their results on some spreadsheet software.”

“Yeah, that work will have to be done quickly. The student pre-registration deadline is coming up,” Rex said. “So, what kind of grade do you think your students will give you?”

Ruth laughed. “Kids come to my computer lab knowing that I can give them knowledge that they need—survival skills. If all I have to do is deliver that information to a group of students that is already engaged, kids are going to appreciate that. And, you know, computers make the instruction so personalized that in many ways the quality of instruction has nothing to do with me. In a lot of ways, it’s all about the student.”

Adam and two other boys were waiting in Ruth’s room. “Ms. Bach, this isn’t working out.”

“Are you having problems with the software?”

“No, I mean, the surveys,” Adam said. “Some of the teachers are starting to treat us like dogs. And some teachers won’t even let us pass the surveys out in their classes.” Adam’s companions nodded in agreement.

Suddenly, Mr. Jackson was at the door. “I just had a conversation with Lynn Morrow’s father. I think it would be a good idea if the two of you had a meeting next week.”

Raising his voice, he continued. “And Adam, I’m glad to see you here because I need to talk with you. We’re going to have to pull that survey.”

Adam’s head shot up. “What do you mean?”

“It’s causing too many problems for my staff, so I want you to quit distributing it.”

Adam’s face turned red and his voice shook. “But you said we could do it. You said the questions were okay. You can’t just change your mind! We’ve already printed everything and passed them out in half the classes! You just can’t do this. Right, Mr. Hall?”

Rex nodded. “These kids have been putting in lots of extra hours to get this done. It’s not fair to stop production now just because of some teacher complaints. Maybe we could meet with those teachers and let them see they have nothing to fear.”

“No. I know you’ve worked hard on this, but it has to end now. I shouldn’t have let you convince me in the first place, but Adam, you’re quite persuasive.”

Adam, looking wholly outraged, did not reply. Rex and Ruth followed Mr. Jackson out to the hall.

“You’ve got to reconsider. These kids really care about this and it’s going to ruin their morale. What does it say about how the school values them and their opinions?”

“Sorry, Rex. I know you want their work to be meaningful, as do I. But I want to keep my staff � and they are up in arms over this. I’m not negotiating on this one.”

Authority and power are two different things: Power is the force by means of which you can oblige others to obey you. Authority is the right to direct and comment, to be listened to or obeyed by others.
Jacques Maritain
Ruth pushed open the door a crack and peeked in.

“Is he gone?” she asked in a stage whisper.

Rex sat at his desk flipping through his grade book. “Come on in,” he said without looking up. Lynn’s father, Mr. Morrow, had scheduled a conference with Rex right after school and had been in Rex’s room for the past half-hour.

“How’d it go?”

“I don’t think I’ve won over any converts, but we understand each other a little better,” Rex said.

“What happened?” Ruth sat in a desk.

“Well, mostly, he wanted to know why Lynn’s scores tended to be lower than Sam’s. Lynn has ridden same bus with Sam for years, so her family knows he’s a kid with special needs. Apparently, this is the first class Lynn and Sam have ever had together, and when Lynn noticed that Sam’s grades were sometimes higher than hers, she started keeping track.”

“Is that legal?”

“Good question. It probably only involved Lynn leaning over and asking Sam, ‘What did you get?’ after every assignment. But those numbers were Mr. Morrow’s main ammunition.”

“So, was he yelling?” Ruth leaned forward with interest.

Rex chuckled. “Nah. He did challenge me on the fairness of my grading decisions, though. I asked him how he suggested we reward thinking in schools instead of simply knowledge. I told him that I struggle with assigning grades, on one hand, to a kid like Sam who is not always capable, but who always tries his best, and on the other hand to a kid like Lynn who is very capable, but who doesn’t always give her best effort. So then he asked me what made me qualified to determine what his daughter’s best was…” Rex shook his head.

Rex

Ruth gazed down at the pamphlet in her hand. “You weren’t the only one who got rated today, you know. Guess what our enterprising young leaders did?”

“What?”

She held up the pamphlet. “They published their own �zine.”

“What do you mean?”

“Evidently the council went ahead and decided to work with the surveys they had before Mr. Jackson nixed the project � and now they’ve released these results AND posted them on some website. And they added a nice touch: They decided to rate Mr. Jackson as well. I think they took creative license there, since something about his comb-over comes up.” She grinned. “It got a zero. There’s going to be hell to pay. Mr. Jackson already stopped by to see if we knew about it. I can’t imagine what our colleagues are going to say once they see this.”

“Great. So are we in the hotseat, too?”

“I think I convinced him that we were innocent, but it’ll be a while before this one settles down.”

Rex nodded thoughtfully. “To be honest, I’m glad Adam went ahead and did this. Mr. Jackson shouldn’t have changed his mind. Obviously the kids were passionate about this � and how many school-related things can you say that about?”

“I know. It was hard for me not to look happy when he gave me a copy of the pamphlet. You know, we both got rated. Want to see?”

“yeahSure. Give me the URL” Rex said, typing into his computer. “How’d you do?”

Ruth flipped the pages. “I’m still studying the numbers, but I was surprised at my score on ‘Interaction with Students.’ It was kind of low.”

“I imagine we’re all in for some surprises,” Rex replied. As he waited for the page to load he thought about kids in the buses checking their test scores on the way home. About Lynn leaning over to get a look at Sam’s paper. About all the kids who’d sat through all his classes who penciled in their answers to the survey. About Adam and the sense of accomplishment he must feel. About his colleagues’ reactions. About the consequences they all would face.