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Wired students turn the tables on teachers

Call it the Revenge of the D minus.

Or the backlash from that forced trip to the principal's office.

Or, maybe, call it progress Ñ students as consumers.

Just don't call ratemyteacher.com subtle.

'She doesn't really teach,' a Cleveland High School student writes on the students-rating-teachers Web site, about the student's Spanish teacher. 'She plays movies that don't have anything to do with Spanish É and yells a lot.'

A Grant High School student, meanwhile, is equally unimpressed with a Grant social studies teacher. 'Horrible,' the student writes. 'We watch bad videos, and she tells us how financially secure she is.'

Secure probably is not the dominating emotion as teachers click their way through the Web site.

The site allows middle school and high school students to anonymously rate their teachers Ñ in 'easiness,' 'clarity' and 'helpfulness' Ñ and to comment on their teaching style or on, well, just about anything.

'Lost in the '60s,' a student writes on the Web site about one teacher. 'Misses Walter Mondale dearly.'

Since its Web inception in 2001, more than 2 million students have rated more than 340,000 teachers nationwide. About 140 Portland teachers are among the honored victims.

Contrary to what teachers might fear, the students' ratings seem to lean toward the positive. More than half of the teachers get the yellow smiley face beside their name that shows their ratings averaged at least 3.5 on a scale of 1 to 5.

But there are plenty of teachers who get the blue frowning face Ñ for those whose ratings average below 2 on the scale Ñ as well.

In either case, the students' written comments are where the chalk meets the chalkboard Ñ where the evaluations get interesting or thoughtful or sophomoric or mean.

'The most influential teacher I've had,' someone wrote about Wilson High School English teacher Carolyn Wood in May. 'She allowed me to understand that all literature should be considered from each perspective.'

'Mrs. Kvitka is awesome,' a student wrote about Wilson English teacher Joan Kvitka in February. 'She's very understanding about late work and doesn't try to fake you out for what you have to know on the tests. Plus, you learn a ton in that class. It's not the most enjoyable class, but Mrs. Kvitka is a very talented teacher!'

Meanwhile É 'he likes double standards and making people cry,' someone wrote about a Lincoln High School English teacher two weeks ago.

'Very unclear in directions, favors guys when demonstrating things,' a student wrote in April about a Cleveland High School physical education teacher. 'Looks at watch incessantly when you're asking him something.'

Making teachers accountable

The founders of ratemyteacher.com are actually husband-and-wife teachers: Tim Davis is a special education high school teacher in Bakersfield, Calif.; his wife, Nancy, is an accounting teacher at a Bakersfield community college.

They started the site because they thought that students should have more voice in their education and because teachers should be more publicly accountable for their performance, Tim Davis said.

'I personally have seen a lot of teachers who just slide,' said Davis, who came to teaching eight years ago from a career in marketing. 'They basically know there's no one who can touch them unless they do something really stupid. And it's the students Ñ or the consumers Ñ who suffer.'

The mission of the Web site, Davis said, is for 'students to be informed about teachers they'll have in the future. It gives students and parents a good foundation for where their education is leading.'

Justin Wakefield, who will be a freshman at Lincoln High School this fall, has been using the site this summer to check out his future teachers. The site would be better if the ratings weren't anonymous, he said.

Still, it's 'great for the students who are afraid of a certain 'Mr. Smith' and need a true and honest opinion from a fellow peer,' Wakefield wrote in an e-mail to the Tribune. 'Because let's face it: Some teachers aren't all they're cracked up to be.'

Teachers, probably predictably, are less enamored of the site.

Some have threatened to sue ratemyteacher.com, Davis said. (He sends them an e-mail pointing out that, in general, a negative written statement about someone isn't libelous if it's opinion.)

Lack of communication decried

Even with the often positive evaluations, most comments from teachers about the Web site are critical, especially because students can post negative comments anonymously.

'This site is a farce,' one wrote. 'You should indicate that this is not an accurate survey of students' opinions; it is just a bunch of kids who want to mouth off anonymously. Anyone who is correct in their opinions will not be afraid to state them to the people involved. This is a cowards' site.'

Bruce Cooper, a professor and chairman of the educational leadership division at Fordham University in New York, recently wrote about ratemyteacher.com in Education Week magazine.

He said he likes that the site gives students more voice about their own educations. But, he said, the site would be improved if it allowed better two-way communication Ñ even anonymously Ñ between student and teacher.

'I would prefer there was some way that students and teachers could have a conversation over the Web,' Cooper said.

Michael Vogel, the physical education teacher who 'incessantly' looks at his watch, said he had never heard of ratemyteacher.com.

'I like the concept in principle,' he said. But, after the site's mechanics were described to him, Vogel said he's not sure the categories, or most of the comments, are detailed enough to offer teachers constructive or useful criticism.

'I think if the questions are designed appropriately, on how to move teaching forward, then I think it could be a really wonderful tool,' he said. 'But just to sound off Ñ it's not serving any purpose other than somebody who wants to sound off.'

And as to his looking at his watch 'incessantly'?

'We need to make sure, especially in PE, that we're aware of time,' he said. 'So students are not late to their next class.'

So much for good intentions.