Making the Grade

A screen shot of the Web site www.ratemyteachers.com is designed

Two Web sites designed to let high school and college students
rate their teachers and professors can provide positive feedback
and constructive criticism. But in the eyes of some local teachers,
comments on the sites also can be manipulated and inaccurate
Here’s a multiple-choice question you won’t find on any SAT or final exam, but it’s still a question worth asking:

Are Web sites where students post ratings about their teachers, including whether they are “cool” or “hot,” …

a) slanderous sounding boards

b) valuable information-sharing forums

c) fun and inconsequential

d) potentially damaging on several levels

e) all of the above

If you answered “e,” you get a gold star for the day.

Two such Web sites exist, and they’re stirring plenty of controversy. The site www.ratemyteachers.com is tailored to high schools, and the www.ratemyprofessors.com site is tailored to colleges and universities. The sites have been around since 1999, and are, according to the sites, “a resource for students,” “a place to voice your opinion” and “a place to make a difference in your education.”

The sites attempt to provide a link to every school in America, with a list of all the teachers, professors and lecturers affiliated with the individual schools. Students find their schools, click on the educators of their choice and can rate the educators on easiness, helpfulness, clarity and overall quality. High school students can also rate whether their teachers are “cool,” and college-level students can rate whether their professors are “hot.”

The ratings earn educators a grade of good, average or poor quality, and a space is provided for students to write comments posted next to the ratings they’ve given. In theory, for instance, a student taking an English class can say whether a teacher puts more emphasis on the final research paper or in-class participation. Another example is whether professors are clear during lectures.

The site also gives tips to other students for when they take the class. College-level students can use the ratings to help them decide which teacher’s classes to register for. It’s also a place to praise teachers or offer constructive criticism.

But what seems like a good idea in theory is a much different story in practice.

“The ratings on there are so misleading,” said Jane Edberg, a fine arts teacher at Gavilan College. “I’ve read the reviews of every single teacher at Gavilan, and some of the finest teachers there have negative reviews. Students get pissed off just because these teachers are tough or strict or because a student didn’t like homework assignments, so they go on this site and rip the teachers apart.”

Though Edberg currently has a smiley face on the site – indicating a high-quality review – and a chili pepper – indicating she’s “hot” – her reviews weren’t always positive.

When she first came across the site, Edberg had a frowning face, indicating a poor-quality review. So, she and her friends logged on and created fictitious reviews, proving how easily the ratings can be manipulated and inaccurate, Edberg said.

“The ratings on the site are dangerous because they set up an attitude and are psychologically persuasive,” she said. “Even though I know the ratings are inaccurate, I found myself looking at other professors ratings and thinking, ‘Oooh, they have bad comments,’ before I caught myself and thought, ‘No, this is bull****.'”

Matt Hungerford, a math teacher at Gilroy High School, also questions the validity and usefulness of the sites.

“I don’t know if (www.ratemyteachers.com) is good or bad,” he said. “It really does little good at the high school level, since students don’t get to choose their teachers. It might be good if a large number of students use it, as you might get an initial picture of a teacher, but as it is an ‘opt in’ site, the data has no statistical value.”

Hungerford received average ratings but still was considered a “cool” teacher.

“It’s an innocuous thing, an opportunity for students to vent against a particular teacher who has ‘done them wrong,'” said Pat Adams, a Spanish teacher at San Benito High School. “Perhaps some of the comments are legitimate, but when you’re dealing with 150-plus students in any given year, even the best teachers will have a student who feels they got the raw end of the deal.”

Adams received good ratings and is also considered “cool.”

Chris Jeske, a junior at Gilroy High School, said he’d never heard of the sites but would probably look at them now that he knew they existed.

“It’s a good idea, because some of the teachers at school can be bad, so it would be good to hear from other students so you’d know what to expect,” said Jeske, 17. “I would probably put stuff on there about bad teachers, but I’d say something about good experiences, too.”

In college, when students can pick their own teachers, Jeske said the sites could help make sure he had good professors teaching his classes.

Lanae Bach, mother of a Live Oak High School student, said she thought the sites would be an excellent way for teachers to receive feedback and get a pat on the back for jobs well done.

“It’s a good way for teachers to gauge how they’re doing,” Bach said. “But my fear, of course, would be that some kids might not like their teacher or maybe they got a bad grade, so they’d use (the site) to retaliate.”

Edberg, Hungerford and Adams each said they’d welcome positive and negative feedback from students, but felt it would be more effective to hear feedback in person rather than via a Web site.

Though much of the feedback on the sites is focused on teaching style and a class’ workload, some of it includes personal comments about educators. On the sites’ guidelines telling students what to do and what not to do when rating their teachers, a significant part of the “do nots” warns against making personal remarks – including racist, sexist or superficial comments. The sites are supposedly monitored for such irrelevant postings, but a quick read-through of a few postings shows they aren’t monitored well.

“Looking at San Benito High School, there was one particular teacher whose comments were very personal, and I felt bad that this teacher would have to read something like that,” said Adams. “Certainly, we’re all entitled to an opinion, but it wasn’t a critique about his class, instruction or curriculum, and that’s the beneficial part of a site like this. Personal comments are counterproductive.”

Edberg cited a comment posted about one of her colleagues to prove the point that the sites are not well-monitored and how irrelevant and potentially slanderous some of the comments are. The posting claims half of the students in the class had “hard ons” for the professor, and it also criticizes the instructor’s personal hygiene and uses harsh terms for the physical appearance of female students in the professor’s class. Postings such as this are useless, Edberg said.

“How is this kind of stuff constructive? Where is the monitoring? Sure, there are positive comments posted, but there should be a better forum for disgruntled students,” said Edberg. She added that being rated as “hot” or not could be considered a form of sexual harassment.

On the Web sites’ “about us” link, a message states that there is no way to know exactly who is posting ratings and the ratings are not statistically valid. It also warns teachers against trying to sue the sites. An outline of court cases and paragraphs of legal jargon attempt to explain how the sites are not liable for content.

Local Comments

Here are examples of some ratings for a handful of South Valley professors and teachers as they appear on the Web sites ratemyteachers.com and ratemyprofessors.com:

“okay first off, HALF OF THESE PPL HAD HARD ONS FOR THIS HIPPIE.. I HAD A FROWN ON FOR THIS LIBERAL ARTIZZZZZZZZT… sorry i went to sleep because even talking about his coarse makes me snooze… If you grabbed a hackysack, a pair of stinky torn up jeans and some stained shirt, and some 60 cent hairdue you’d get this guy … this whole class was a mistake, it sucked and i learned nothing but just how much more I hate museums, if you go to this class thinking hella fine girls, WRONG, haven for uglygirls” 

“One of the most creative teacher I’ve ever met. He’s always intreasted in your projects how your doing were you wanan go with it. Maybe it’s becuase I’m an art major but i never felt that he had us do nore work then was needed to complete a project. … an awesoem teacher i highly recommend him.” 

“She seems nice but she isn’t really a good teacher. Her directions aren’t as clear as I’d like them to be as far as what she wants and she grades hard compared to other teachers. She gets mad if people don’t participate. At least 2/3 of the class stopped showing up not even 1/2 way into the sem.” 

“Read a book a week and wrote a paper a week. Easy class as long us you kept up.” 

“Very friendly and personable. Covers all material well and the presentations get gradually longer as the class progresses and you learn more. You have to do the research and prepare for your speeches but it’s not that difficult.”

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