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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Rating Game: Does it Help or Hurt?

The pros and cons of a teacher-rating Web site.
By Sarah Fallon

As warm as the relationship between students and teachers can sometimes be, it can often go south -- and quickly. Witness the rapid rise of the Web site RateMyTeachers.com, where more than 5 million ratings (positive and negative) have been posted that evaluate about 850,000 educators in thousands of middle and high schools throughout the United States and Canada. Some pending legislation in the California legislature, however, might help make the feedback loop between teachers and students a little less acrimonious.

On RateMyTeachers.com, students anonymously judge their teachers and administrators on attributes like helpfulness, clarity, and easiness. They can also post comments: "very manipulative" and "poor class management . . . calls security for the problems he should be managing himself!"

While some teachers encourage their charges to visit the site, it has made others nervous. According to co-founder Michael Hussey, more than 600 schools or school districts nationwide have blocked it on their online networks. Hussey, however, who started the site with two California teachers, says he wants to "get students involved in the quality of their education and give them a voice."

Fair enough, but while mass anonymous voting might be fine for American Idol, it can be useless to teachers, who might like to use feedback in a comprehensive, systematic way so that they can actually listen to their students.

Enter California Assembly Bill 2370, which is now on its way to the governor's desk. It would protect students and teachers who participate in a feedback program in California middle and high schools. The process would be confidential and voluntary, and the information would remain the property of the teachers, who are protected against any punishment or judgment as a result of the feedback, guidelines that the bill's proponents say were key to garnering support. School districts could compose their own questions or choose from a list still to be determined by the California Teachers Association and the California Association of Student Councils (CASC).

Says Andrew Steinberg, a recent high school graduate and governmental-affairs program director at CASC, "Our bill allows feedback to become a more real proposition, not just teacher bashing."

Sarah Fallon is the former managing editor of Edutopia.

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