After teacher tenure ruling, could student evaluations gain ground?

Maki O’Bryan faced the teacher from hell her junior year at George Washington High School in San Francisco.The teacher was constantly late to class, talked about her personal life, put down her students and the school and gave bad grades to those who even questioned her.

“If she didn’t have tenure I don’t think she would even work here,” said O’Bryan.

So O’Bryan, a rising senior, wishes California law would not protect ineffective teachers like her dreaded AP English teacher.

Students like O’Bryan just might get their wish.

Christopher Leong-Sanchez voices his opinion about the current controversy over teacher tenure on June 24, 2014, in San Jose, Calif. (Iris Hung/Mosaic)

In a lawsuit known as Vergara vs. California, a Superior Court judge this month dismissed five laws on teacher employment. As a result, California may soon revise how its public school teachers are granted tenure, laid off and dismissed. Judge Rolf Treu ruled that teacher tenure laws violate students’ rights to an equal education and harm in particular minority and low-income families.

In revising those rules, a key element will be how schools evaluate teachers. Should students’ and parents’ opinion count? Some students say that even when a teacher with poor skills or a bad attitude makes it difficult to learn, students can’t do anything about it.

Christopher Leong-Sanchez, a rising senior at James Lick High School in San Jose, had to put up with a teacher who did little but give worksheets all year. “I went to the vice principal about it. She said she couldn’t really do anything about it, I had to deal with it.”

Dana Dela Cruz, of Mills High School in Millbrae, also believes schools usually don’t listen to students — although once, during her freshman year, students that complained about a frequently absent teacher who gave confusing assignments got the administration to help improve the teacher’s behavior.

“Student evaluations should definitely have consequences, but that doesn’t necessarily mean ‘bad’ teachers should be fired; teacher training and workshops can also be an option,” Dela Cruz,15, wrote.

Sometimes, parent opinion does matter. At Alamo Elementary in San Francisco, parents complained in December 2012 about a first-grade teacher’s multiple absences. At the end of the school year, the teacher transferred to another school — satisfying Alamo parents, but possibly creating problems elsewhere.

“The current system isn’t working to ensure that every classroom has a quality teacher,” said Joe Speaks, one of the parents who complained to the board of education.

Some teachers fear student evaluations would benefit popular teachers and not necessarily competent ones. But Ryan Nordvik, who solicited students’ reviews each semester when he taught physics at International Studies Academy in San Francisco, said he values their judgment. He said a good solution would be to have anonymous evaluations by students, or to consider a student’s feedback for all of his or her teachers.

Not everyone agrees. Primary among critics, teacher unions oppose having performance evaluations count in teacher dismissal and layoff decisions. Both the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers plan to appeal Vergara. Frank Wells of the CTA said student evaluation is problematic. “Actual evaluation should be done by people who have been trained to do it,” said Wells.

Royce Branning, a recent graduate of Menlo-Atherton High School agreed. “I don’t think many students, myself included, are capable of objectively evaluating how good a teacher is at their job,” he said. “Different teaching styles appeal to different students, and the grade a student receives can alter his or her perception of the class and teacher.”

But some charter schools, which are independently operated from elected school boards and mostly employ non-union teachers, consider student opinions in reviewing teachers. Among them is Summit Public School: Shasta, in Daly City. “Generally, I think that kids are good at knowing when they are learning and when they’re not learning,” Summit math teacher Zack Miller said. Even though students may not always say the right things for the right reason, Miller said, his experience with student surveys has always been good and his colleagues seem to think it’s fair. Perhaps the public school system may follow Summit’s lead.

Leong-Sanchez of James Lick said an evaluation only by administrators isn’t going to do a school justice. “You need to hear it from the victims, from the students themselves because they are the ones being taught by the teacher.”