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Can 360-Degree Feedback Work for Teacher Evaluations?

With legislators, educators and parents scrambling to “fix” education, teacher performance has gotten more than its share of scrutiny. As principals and schools scrap the methods that don’t seem to be working in evaluating teachers, others are adopting techniques that have been used throughout corporate America.

One of those approaches is the 360-degree feedback for employee evaluations. Used for numerous years in the business world, school districts in Hawaii, Pittsburgh and, more recently, Washington, D.C., have used the 360-degree model to evaluate teachers. That means that not only are the teachers’ supervisors and peers participating in their evaluations, their students also are giving feedback.

In the D.C. pilot program, more than 450 elementary and high school teachers underwent a process in which the students responded to a survey on how their teachers could improve performance in the classroom, according to a news report by American University Radio. While advocates of the program argue that students spend more time in the classroom than anyone else, including principals, critics pointed out that it could evolve into nothing more than a popularity contest.

During the Hawaii evaluation process, student evaluations counted for 10 percent of the overall score of teachers’ evaluations in the first round of the process. Now, that feedback only factors into those evaluations indirectly.

The student feedback holds even more significance in Pittsburgh Public Schools, where it factors in for 15 percent of the teacher evaluations. Student test scores also played a role in the overall evaluations. The teachers union for Pittsburgh do not consider the evaluation process ideal, but Bill Hileman, union vice president, says the student perception surveys can have merit but not for teacher evaluations. “There’s fabulous information about how students perceive their experiences in public schools,” he said. But it should not have anything to do with whether or not a teacher can keep his or her job.

Making 360-degree feedback effective

Teachers are not alone in questioning the merit of 360-degree feedback where, in corporate America, it typically involves feedback from supervisors, peers and subordinates. In writing for Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy, offer these tips on making the process work:

Measure the right skills. Determine which competencies make a difference to performance and invite comment on those skills.

Properly explain the process. Inform participants and those giving feedback how the information will be used to help the employee’s development.

Create short surveys. The feedback should only take about 15 minutes to complete to avoid survey fatigue.

Focus on strengths. Use the surveys to identify strengths instead of weaknesses. In most cases, weaknesses will be evident in the minority of evaluations. Focus efforts on making it a positive process.