We've all had bad teachers. Teachers who don't seem to care, teachers who have difficulty explaining, teachers who aren't very good at, well, teaching.
In university, there are mechanisms, if imperfect, to deal with bad teachers. Student evaluations serve as checks on lazy, ineffective, or merely imperfect teachers. At the University of Toronto, for example, at the end of every course you have the opportunity to rank, and comment on, a course's difficulty, its workload compared to other courses at that level, and the quality of the professor's teaching.
In high school, however, there are no opportunities to provide constructive criticism. Students are in the classroom daily, and experience what does and does not help them to learn. The purpose of teaching is to educate students. At a very basic level, teachers are providing a service, without any mechanism to hear from their clients (students) about what is and is not working. What assessment does exist is ineffective.
Under the current model, teachers receive significant advance warning of an upcoming evaluation by an administrator. While the time period varies from board to board, in many they must be informed at the beginning of the year. When the evaluation day arrives, they have prepared an innovative, exceptional, lesson plan. Students are asked to be on their best behaviour and teachers deliver a remarkable lesson. This is both entirely understandable (who wouldn't do their very best when being assessed by their boss) but also problematic – it represents one lesson on one day, hardly a complete picture.
Student assessment in university acts as a quality control, but also as an important way for professors to learn what is and is not working. If many students didn't understand a concept, or felt the material on the test had not been previously covered, this is important for the teacher to know. Feedback from students is a simple, easy way for teachers to improve. At its core, it's a learning opportunity – surely something schools should be encouraging?
It's not only a learning opportunity for teachers, but one for students. Learning how to give constructive criticism is a valuable life lesson.
There is little parents can do to improve the teaching experience for their child, especially in high school. Students have a teacher for a semester, or at most a year at a time. If there's a problem with that teacher, they'll do their best to avoid them in future years, or the family will try and steer younger siblings away from them. The parent's critical role, as an advocate for their elementary-school child, is reduced in high school.
Often, a parent's first real glimpse into whether a student is learning in high school is a 4 or 5 minute parent-teacher interview with minimal opportunity for follow-up or clarification.
Allowing students to provide assessments of their teachers wouldn't fix all of these problems, but it would go a long way. Students can tell teachers which teaching methods they found effective, and what concepts they left class still unsure about. Assessments are also a chance for positive reinforcement. Teachers can guess what is most effective in helping students understand, but without hearing from them, how would they really know?
Implementing assessments is as simple as teachers allowing students a forum for anonymous feedback. It can be informal, effective, and doesn't have to cost a thing.
The point may be raised that tests and written work give teachers the insight they need into whether or not the students are learning. Yet hearing directly from students is the only way to actually know what they understand, or don't. In high school young people are repeatedly being told they need to act like young adults. Allowing them to play a direct role in improving their own education seems like a good first step.
Zane Schwartz was one of Canada's Top 20 Under 20 and was a student trustee at the Toronto District School Board.