It's always been a one-way street: Students perform and teachers judge. But some students at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School can't wait to upend the system and put teachers' performances under the microscope.
"Teachers evaluate us all the time," says junior Liza Reynolds, 16. "It's only fair for us to do the same for them."
The idea of Vineyard high school students giving report cards to their teachers is gaining momentum, but not without teachers and administrators raising some serious caution flags.
During a two-day leadership seminar at the high school in August, nearly 30 students brainstormed a list of proposals for making changes at the institution that houses 806 students and 78 teachers.
The issue of student evaluations of teachers has already made it to the school advisory council, sparking heated debate, says high school principal Peg Regan, who spearheaded the August summit as a way to empower students.
To some school leaders, a system that enables students to evaluate teachers could revolve more around personalities than education.
"Sometimes students plainly didn't like a teacher, and the evaluation was a time to, quote, get back at that teacher, unquote," says Elizabeth Rawlins, a member of the school advisory council and a retired professor of education. "My experience tells me that some teachers have a right to worry about that."
Mrs. Regan admits there's some "discomfort" with giving students a bigger voice, but she says it's essential to their education.
"They have to have authentic input into the governance of the school if they're going to do anything well," she says. "Just to give them tasks already designed for them to fulfill is not really bringing out leadership."
Now that school leaders have unleashed newly empowered students, the next question is how to begin implementing their ideas for change.
Students have already mapped out their own plan. Alex deGeofroy, a 17-year-old senior, and Miss Reynolds, who both attended the leadership summit, say they envision a drop box for evaluations and forming a student board to review them.
"We would go through and find the ones that matter. If we had a lot of complaints about the same thing, we would take it to Mrs. Regan," says Miss Reynolds.
Grades, homework and teaching style are the main areas that concern students, according to Mr. deGeofroy, who is the student representative on the regional school committee.
"There may be inequity between courses that are the same but taught by different teachers," says the senior. "One teacher may grade unfairly, and the other may be an easy grader."
Students are frustrated when they run into problems with teachers."No one really listens to what we say," says Miss Reynolds.
In her view, some teachers focus on test scores and not student learning. "Teachers teach to make themselves look good and so we'll do well on a test," says Miss Reynolds. "They don't care if we're learning. It's all about the next step."
The point of student input on teaching is to offer constructive criticism, says Mr. deGeofroy.
It's unclear now whether the idea can become a reality at the high school. Mrs. Regan told the regional school committee last month that she is looking at three or four models used in other schools that allow students to offer feedback to teachers.
Island high school teachers are already making it clear that while they don't mind the prospect of students writing course evaluations, they see the dangers in students writing reviews of specific faculty members.
Biology teacher Michael Joyce believes students have the right to assess the classroom and learning experience. "They're the consumers. If they're not getting it, you need to look at changing it," he says.
But teachers are concerned that student input could be used by administration as part of their official review.
"It gets a little tricky. If it starts to become a tool used by the administration to evaluate the teachers, then you're talking about 14 and 15-year-old people making a value judgment on a professional," says Mr. Joyce. "If a group of students dislike a teacher, and they get eight to 10 similar comments, that would be something. You have to be careful."
Some teachers already ask students to fill out a course evaluation, but the standard practice has been to call for such input at the end of the year. Teachers use that information to improve their teaching, says art teacher Paul Brissette.
"It's great that students be involved in the evaluation of a course, but I don't think it should be personalized," says social studies teacher Marge Harris. "I keep it to the business of education, how it's being taught and what works for kids."
But teachers also see the value in ongoing input, tapping students for feedback during the year or at the end of each quarter.
What's more, the practice of looking to students for some measure of job performance is now required by the association that accredits the high school. "It says it quite specifically that teachers use feedback from a variety of sources . . . including students," says Mrs. Regan.
That accreditation process is happening this year, so student leaders may have hit on some good timing in their demands for more of a voice.
And despite the concerns of some teachers worried about vengeful kids in their classrooms, the move to give students more of a say in how the school is run has the full backing of the principal.
This year, Mrs. Regan started holding monthly meetings with students, modeled on the informal morning coffees held each month for parents. Kids sign up and get to sit down with the principal and talk about concerns. Last month, 27 students showed up.
Mrs. Regan also oversaw the creation of a new student congress open to any student who wants to participate, in contrast to student council, which is an elected body of seven officers from each class.
Miss Reynolds says students are responding to the invitation to have their voices heard. "This is really good," she says. "It's our school."