Company Known for Student Surveys Unveils New Tool for Teachers

Senior Editor

One of the best-known providers of student surveys is launching a new, free service for teachers, aimed at helping educators—who might otherwise be wary of the survey data—use the results to refine their classroom practices.

Over the past few years, student surveys have served many purposes, some of them controversial—most notably their role in evaluating teachers as part of their performance reviews.

The new project announced by Tripod Education Partners, a commercial, Cambridge, Mass.-based entity perhaps best known for its work on a well-publicized study of teacher effectiveness by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is also focused on teaching practices, albeit from a different angle.

The new surveys will use the same research methodology on teachers’ classroom work that Tripod used for the Gates study. For the new effort, Tripod will give teachers access to a platform, at no cost, that allows them to conduct annual surveys of students, designed to support their professional growth. Teachers get the survey results within hours, along with confidential reports designed to support their classroom strategies.

“It’s a considerable departure for us, in terms of the delivery model,” said Rob Ramsdell, the CEO of Tripod, in an interview.

Given the prevailing skepticism among some educators about using student surveys to gauge teachers’ strengths and weaknesses, Tripod officials hope their approach will lead more educators to look at surveys not just as part of evaluation systems, but also as providing “key pieces of information” for improving their skills he said. When it comes to shaping teachers’ views of surveys, “We’re at a pivotal point here,” Ramsdell said.

Unlike many student survey instruments, which focus on providing information to states or districts, the Tripod “direct-to-teacher” model is targeted at individual educators, who can arrange to stage the online, anonymous surveys of students at any point during the school year. Teachers could conduct them just after school begins, to gauge students’ initial impressions of educators’ classroom approaches, or later, to get a sense of students’ overall satisfaction over time.

How do Tripod officials believe arranging free surveys will pay off for them, commercially?

Teachers who use the free service need the approval of their principals. Principals, however, do not see the survey results unless teachers agree to share them—and the info is not to be shared across schools or districts.Tripod officials believe that once educators and administrators see the benefits of the surveys in helping individual teachers, it will help convince administrators to commit to purchasing fuller versions of the product across schools and districts. Time will tell whether that strategy pays off for Tripod.

As we reported recently in Education Week, a number of well-known companies that conduct survey students have tried to retool their methods and strategies to focus on helping teachers improve professionally—rather than simply using those results in a high-stakes way. Tripod’s competitors in the space include Panorama EducationMy Student Survey, and numerous other commercial and nonprofit entities. 

Tripod will use surveys that begin with fewer than 20 items, though longer surveys are available, and are meant to provide information on students’ engagement and mindset, school climate, and other areas.

Founded by Harvard University’s Ronald Ferguson, Tripod’s work on student surveys was a major component of the Gates foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching project, a much-publicized and far-reaching attempt to identify the qualities of high-quality educators. (Education Week receives grant funding from the Gates foundation to support its coverage of efforts to implement college- and career-ready standards, though the newspaper retains sole editorial control over the content of that work.)

Tripod’s methodology for evaluating teachers’ performance is based on what it calls the “7 C’s.” It judges, for examples, educators’ ability to captivate, or inspire students’ curiosity and interest; confer, or invite ideas and promote discussion; and control, meaning sustaining respect and order.

In the direct-to-teacher program, Tripod is being helped by Qualtrics, a software company that focuses on data collection. Qualtrics will provide teachers with access to its platform where they can develop and use their own surveys, according to Tripod.

Teachers are aware of their own practices,” Ferguson said in a statement on the new effort.

But “sometimes student and teacher perceptions don’t match,” he added. “Understanding differences between student and teacher perceptions can prompt teachers to try different approaches to engage all students.”

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