- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2003

Bill Ellis, a social studies teacher at Berkmar High School in Lilburn, Ga., is perplexed by a Web site that allows students to rate him anonymously like a movie or the latest novel by Stephen King.

“It’s strange,” says Mr. Ellis, 50. “It’s difficult to interpret what the ratings actually mean. I think it’s actually meaningless.”

Then again, he can’t complain: The nine students who have rated him on www.ratemyteachers.com gave him a positive overall score of 4.3 out of 5, with comments such as, “Mr. Ellis is the coolest,” and “Funny, extremely laid back.”

At the other end of the spectrum, one of Mr. Ellis’ peers at Berkmar is called “the devil” and a “gruesome monster.”

That’s the point, says Michael Hussey, 25, a Maine techie who co-founded the site with a Bakersfield, Calif., company run, in part, by teachers.

“Teachers don’t get a lot of organized feedback from their students,” Mr. Hussey says. “This is a way for students to honestly evaluate them in an anonymous way. We think both teachers and students can use this as a resource.”

The 2-year-old site has more than 2.6 million reviews of 430,000-plus teachers.

That number includes Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which the site names in its Most Rated Schools category. That means, apparently, that Jefferson students are among the site’s most active users.

One of those students is Aman George, 17, of Falls Church, who is editor of the monthly newspaper TJ Today. He tried to write an article about the site last year but says he was discouraged by the administration from doing so.

“I definitely look at it for feedback,” he says. “There is no formal system for feedback [on teachers] in school.”

He says the site helps him decide which classes to take — courses and the faculty teaching them are published one month before students must sign up. In his opinion, students use the site constructively rather than as a place to criticize teachers with whom they have had disagreements. Overall, he says, the site doesn’t have a lot of impact on operations at the school.

Aman’s views are borne out by Richard Washer of the school’s information technology staff.

“To the best of my knowledge, no one pays much attention to it,” he says. “Teacher evaluation is controlled by the county at large. We poll seniors [about teachers] when they graduate, and teachers may have their own individual polls.”

The school’s students who do use it, he believes, most likely are searching for courses that get high ratings from fellow students rather than teachers who have a reputation for [easy] courses.

“They do what we used to do in college — seek out quality. They are eager to get into the top colleges in the country and want to be well-prepared.”

A sister site that Mr. Hussey designed but does not own, www.ratemyprofessors.com, offers the same service to college students, and www.pickaprof.com, a smaller site, includes class grade averages and more comprehensive reviews of professors.

At Ratemyteachers.com and Ratemyprofessors.com, the setup is similar. Teachers are ranked from 1 to 5 on three criteria: helpfulness, clarity and easiness. The first two are averaged and guide the overall rating, summarized by a smiley or frowny face. Students are not required to register. The most popular teachers at the high school level get sunglasses on their smiley faces.

Site managers or volunteer student administrators vet the comments, which Mr. Hussey says are about 70 percent positive.

“I delete about 10 percent of the comments, things like, ‘He looks at girls too much,’” says Phillip Jennings, a senior and Ratemyteachers.com student administrator for Duluth High School in Georgia. “I don’t want us to get sued.” (Mr. Hussey says the site is protected by the First Amendment and that, despite threats, he has not been sued.)

Even with this safeguard, it’s impossible to judge the quality of the raters themselves.

“It’s not really scientific,” says Robert Falk, a mathematics teacher at the Paideia School in Atlanta, who received universally positive ratings. “You can’t give it credence.” Then again, he says, “Anytime you see that someone thinks you did a good job, it’s wonderful because teachers don’t get very much praise.”

Tim Maley, a physics teacher at North Springs High School in Atlanta, says students at his school generally are unaware of the site and have not rated him but that he knows a teacher in California who was flamed.

“You need a thick skin to read about yourself like this,” Mr. Maley says. “The problem is if they make it accountable and useful, it won’t draw the students. It’s more set up as a vent. I think the site’s purpose is more to get people to the site than it is to benefit education.”

Indeed, the site hasn’t made a lot of fans among school administrators. Ratemyteachers.com cites more than 490 schools nationwide that reportedly have barred student access to the site on school computers, including Montgomery County Public Schools.

Brian J. Porter, spokesman for Montgomery County Public Schools, says the site first came to school system’s attention because of some of the language caught in the filtering done as part of the Federal Child Protection Act, which checks for objectionable and pornographic material.

“We will not tolerate holding our teachers up to public ridicule using our own computers and software,” he says. “We take an extremely dim view of what is tantamount to a medieval public flogging. Teachers are not public figures, and we won’t condone holding them up to ridicule this way.”

Parkview High School in Lilburn, Ga., also blocked access to the site.

“We blocked access last spring because that’s not appropriate activity during instructional time,” says Parkview Assistant Principal Allison Dalton.

“The question is, how is rating that teacher going to impact the instruction in the classroom,” Miss Dalton says. “Basically, not in any way whatsoever.”

Most students don’t have control over which teachers they get, anyway, she says.

However, college students do, which is why Ratemyprofessors.com is more useful, contends John Swapceinski, site founder and a software engineer.

Daphne Waller, 29, a human services major and senior at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., says she chose a political science class on criminal justice this past summer based on positive feedback about the professor, Stan Crowder, at both Pickaprof.com and Ratemyprofessors.com.

“I think the ratings were pretty accurate,” she says.

Staff writer Ann Geracimos contributed to this story.


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