TAMPA — Kids know what they're talking about when it comes to rating their own teachers.
That's an early finding from a two-year, $45 million effort by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to videotape teachers in seven urban school districts across the country, including Hillsborough County, to find out what makes them effective.
Even before that videotaping has been completed or analyzed, the study's use of surveys suggests that students can be useful reporters on what's going on in their classrooms.
"Student perceptions are reliable, informative and predictive" of teacher effectiveness, said Thomas Kane, a Harvard University professor and deputy director of education programs at the Gates Foundation. "What we found is the students know."
In Hillsborough, around 720 teachers gave students surveys and extra tests last year, in addition to letting researchers videotape four lessons. While some of those teachers have retired or switched schools, the study is continuing this year in around 520 classes. The study is also being conducted in Memphis, Dallas, Charlotte, N.C., Denver, New York, and Pittsburgh.
Until now, teacher evaluations in such districts have generally been driven solely by a principal's visit to the classroom and have done a poor job of distinguishing between strong and weak teachers. In 2008 Hillsborough rated 99.5 percent of its teachers as satisfactory or outstanding.
This year the district has overhauled its evaluation system using a separate, $100 million grant from the Gates Foundation. Forty percent of teachers' ratings will be based on a three-year calculation of how much they contribute to each student's learning, based on test scores. The remainder will be based on evaluations by the principal and a peer evaluator.
Speaking in a conference call Friday, Kane said the national videotaping study should help researchers design teacher evaluation systems that don't rely solely on principals or test scores.
"The answer is to add in other measures to determine whether a teacher is effective," he added. "Student perceptions would help on that."
In the confidential surveys, students in the seven districts were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with statements such as: "We use time well in this class and we don't waste time," "In this class we learn a lot almost every day," and "Students in this class treat the teacher with respect."
The students ranged mostly from grades 4 through 8 and, Kane said, their responses tended to cluster in one direction or the other. In a quarter of the classrooms, around 70 percent of students said their teachers didn't waste time. But in another quarter of classrooms, less than a third of students agreed with that statement.
Classrooms that responded positively to such questions tended to do better on state tests like the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, Kane said.
And do students perform better if their teachers "teach to the test" and cram for the FCAT? Not at all.
"Those were not the classrooms that on average showed the larger student achievement gains on the state test," Kane said.
In another finding, most teachers whose students performed well on state tests did equally well on a more complex, problem-solving test the researchers gave to students.
But there was also a small group of teachers whose students performed better on the tougher test, suggesting that tests like the FCAT might not be capturing all of the things that effective teachers do in the classroom.
By videotaping 13,000 lessons last year, and a similar number this year, researchers hope to shed more light on the traits of high-performing teachers. Such information could help principals do a better job of evaluating teachers by helping them to focus on what works, Kane said.
Organizing the study in Hillsborough and gaining parent consent for children to be videotaped required a massive effort, said district project coordinator Faychone Durant.
Teachers earned a $1,500 stipend out of a $2.2 million Gates grant for volunteering.
And the Hillsborough Education Foundation used around $370,000 of that money to gather parent consent forms from each participating student. Much of that was spent to give families a $10 gift card to McDonalds or AMC movies — a small incentive to return the forms.
"We did that in Hillsborough County because we are an active consent county," Durant said, referring to district policy. "We have to have every parent's consent, yes or no."
A small number of families declined to participate, and their children were seated in a "dead zone" out of view of the camera.
For Rebecca Fedele, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Giunta Middle School, the program has already brought benefits. Just being able to watch herself teaching has been helpful, she said.
"You kind of get to see things through the students' eyes about your teaching," she said. "While you're watching it you think, 'Oh, I didn't explain that as well as I thought I did.'"
Students were a little nervous at first, but they soon forgot about the camera and behaved normally. Some acted out, and others showed off under the extra attention.
"After the first round of it, they kind of thought, 'Okay, this isn't as exciting as I thought it would be,' " said Fedele, 29.
It is, perhaps, more exciting for their teacher, now in her sixth year. She sees a chance to help her entire profession get a little bit better and reach a few more students.
"I'm really hoping it will provide some information on what does make a teacher effective," Fedele said. "It's not just knowing the subject matter or coming in and having a relationship with kids. It's a multitude of things."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.