Students set to grade teachers under new schools contract

City students will begin grading their teachers under the new teacher evaluation system rolling out next school year.

On Monday, the New York City Department of Education’s Committee on Contracts will vote on a one-year, $5.9 million contract for a system of student surveys that will allow 3rd through 12th graders to evaluate their teachers.

While during the first year of the new teacher evaluation system the results of these surveys will not be included in the teacher evaluation formula, next year teachers’ marks on these surveys will account for five of the 60 percent of teacher evaluation scores not determined by student performance on state tests.

With more than 700,000 students enrolled in city public schools in those grades, the year-one survey contract will cost about $8 a student.

The city will be contracting with Cambridge Education LLC of Westwood, Mass., a division of the Mott MacDonald Group, a global consulting firm, for the services. While Dr. Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, developed the program, Cambridge Education owns the intellectual property and is the sole licensed provider of the surveys.

Ferguson’s program, called the Tripod Project, asks students questions aimed at evaluating their teachers on the “Seven Cs:” caring about students, captivating students, conferring with students, controlling behavior, clarifying lessons, challenging students and consolidating knowledge. (Some past Tripod surveys can be found here.)

In its promotional documents, Cambridge Education asserted that “no observer, no matter how well trained, has more first-hand experience than the students in any particular classroom. Tripod student survey assessments are designed to capture key dimensions of classroom life and teaching practice as students experience them, first-hand in real time.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching program, which sought to develop and test different measures of teacher effectiveness, tested the usefulness of these student surveys in 2010, giving 100,000 students Tripod surveys. Researchers found a positive correlation between high ratings on the student surveys of teachers and high rankings on teacher observations by superiors and growth in standardized test scores.

Other research has come to different conclusions. The National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards & Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles Graduate School of Education & Information Studies found no correlation between Tripod survey results and student performance on standardized tests, though did suggest the surveys were valuable nonetheless.

Cambridge Education is the only teacher-evaluation firm currently authorized by the state education department to conduct such surveys in local districts, which have the option of adopting them. In the case of New York City, however, the state ordered that these evaluations be a part of the teacher evaluation plan it created through binding arbitration between the teachers’ union and the city, after they failed to reach a deal.

According to Jonathan Burman, a New York State Education Department spokesman, the city requested that Tripod be a part of the evaluation system.

Encouraged by the Gates study, the New York City Department of Education first started using the Tripod program in some of the schools that participated in a Teacher Effectiveness pilot program. The UFT has been against the use of student surveys since and objected to their use in the teacher evaluation system.

In 2012, Gotham Schools reported that United Federation of Teachers Secretary Michael Mendel said that the union’s position was that it is wrong to ask students to make high-stakes decisions about their teachers because it could incite teachers to put students’ approval first.

Cambridge Education has a history of working with the state education department. In 2012, the state used federal stimulus dollars to enter into a contract with the company for the design of a principal evaluation system.

New York is not alone in embracing Tripod. Hawaii will spend $1.1 million next year for the surveys, while Memphis schools will spend $500,000. In Connecticut, districts may elect to have 5 percent of their teacher’s scores be based on Tripod results. Santa Rosa County, Florida, will do the same.

While New York City will only be using the surveys in grades 3 through 12, Cambridge Education offers surveys for students in grades Kindergarten through 12.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the committee voted on the contract on August 19, the committee will vote on the contract on August 26.


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