A federal judge recently ordered New Jersey's Oceanport School District to pay $117,500 to a student who was punished two years ago for creating a Web site criticizing his middle school teachers. Even though it was created on personal time using a home computer, school officials were angered by comments posted in the site guest book. The student was suspended for a week, benched from playing on the baseball team for a month and barred from a class trip. "The district never explained to us what rule or policy our son violated," says the boy's father, and the court ruled that Oceanport administrators violated the student's right to free speech.
Grayson Barber, who handled the case on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, says the district presented no evidence that the comments "threatened or disrupted school activities"--a crucial test in judging legality. Related cases in other states have had similar outcomes, and the Supreme Court ruled that public school students "do not shed their constitutional right to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
The explosive development of online communications technologies--including e-mail, instant messages, bulletin boards, forums, wiki sites and blogs--puts enormous grassroots power into the hands of users that reaches around the world. Students will naturally use these vehicles to share opinions on topics that affect their lives, including teachers and schools, and comments will be negative as well as positive. While school quality is commonly defined by various factors, including per-pupil expenditures and class size, students almost never get to evaluate their educational experiences. Thanks to the Internet, those voices are now being heard.
Rating Teachers Online
College students have long had opportunities to evaluate the quality of their instructors through Web sites such as Rate My Professors, Professor Performance--regrettably also known as MyProfessorSucks.com--and specialized sites such as Rate VT Teachers for Virginia Tech. But now the concept is exploding in K-12 education. For example, RateMyTeachers.com has compiled 8 million evaluations on more than a million teachers from 50,000 schools that probably include some in your district.
RateMyTeachers lets students rank teachers on a scale of 1 to 5 on easiness, helpfulness and clarity, and displays the results with an overall score and smiling or frowning face for each individual. In addition, students can add comments that are screened to exclude those that are potentially libelous, sexually explicit, profane or unrelated to teaching. Readers can also flag comments they feel are inappropriate for further review, though even scathing comments are allowed to stay if they relate to the classroom. Site co-founder Michael Hussey says about 60 percent of the evaluations are positive, but also says, "I think we encouraged a few teachers to retire."
Unfortunately, most site administrators have no way to tell if teacher evaluations were done by students, colleagues or even the teachers themselves, and they cannot control the number of times that individual ratings are submitted. Still, many educators feel that student feedback is a potent source of information that districts can use to help improve teaching and identify strong and weak teachers. At the same time others feel the evaluations are usually popularity contests and witch hunts by disgruntled students. Either way, the online evaluation of teachers is here to stay, so check your school ratings and see how students feel about their classes.
Odvard Egil Dyrli, firstname.lastname@example.org, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.