A funny thing happened on the way to the debate over how best to evaluate teachers. A website came along called ratemyteachers.com.
Ratemyteachers.com is pretty much what you'd expect: It features anonymous ratings of schoolteachers, much as Yelp.com features anonymous ratings of practically everything else.
So far, the ratings on ratemyteachers aren't nearly as comprehensive as those on Yelp or Amazon. And like everything anonymous on the Internet, it is susceptible to abuse.
Yet in looking up some of the teachers at our local high school, I found the students' comments reasonably fair. In one case there was near unanimity about a teacher who is likable enough but doesn't teach (and who, I happen to know, has this reputation among students). In other cases there were sharply differing views about some teachers, as you might expect. But here too, at least one side was in agreement with what I'd heard from my sons.
Most important of all, the comments and ratings didn't seem abusive or vindictive. In this arena, as in so many, there is safety in numbers: More ratings tends to produce fairer and more reliable results.
Opponents of formal teacher evaluations, a hot issue in New York just now, should take note. Through the local grapevine, parents and students often can easily identify the most desirable teachers in a given school. So teachers are already at the mercy of a somewhat capricious system of informal evaluation -- a system most of us know as "reputation."
Now, thanks to the Internet, teachers are becoming subject to an anonymous evaluation system with considerably more reach than mere word-of-mouth.
Personally, I found the information on ratemyteachers.com reasonably useful, and I plan to encourage my sons to rate their teachers -- for the benefit of the teachers, who could use the feedback, as well as for subsequent students, who ought to know what they're in for. Armed with this kind of information, parents and students can make better choices, and teachers might be motivated to improve.
All that said, it would seem to be better for everyone, including parents and teachers, to put in place a carefully considered evaluation system carried out by professionals, as New York has been struggling to do. And I'd think teachers and their unions would welcome the chance to make the results public, if only to establish a credible alternative to the anonymous raters on the Internet.
Kids would be better off, too, at least judging by the long experience of colleges and universities in empowering students to rate professors.
Student input is valuable. But in recent years, these evaluations have gained importance in deciding whether a professor gets tenure -- and have probably played a significant role in the dumbing down of college level work, as well as the grade inflation that has pumped up report cards. Professors now have a strong incentive merely to keep their students happy instead of challenging them in class.
The whole process has culminated, of course, in ratemypro fessors.com and its 13 million comments and ratings from students, who grade professors on, among other things, "hotness."
The point is that widely available evaluations aren't just coming, they're here -- not just for teachers but, on sites like Angie's List, for plumbers and people in various other walks of life.
"Everybody's a critic," I used to say when I got an angry call or letter. Now everybody really is.