When students grade their teachers

An online service riles some - but others say it's only fair to turn tables.

When Eric Piotrowski wonders what his high school English students think of him, he simply logs on to RateMy- Teachers.com, where millions of anonymous teacher critiques await anyone with an unrestricted Internet connection.

At the site, a smiley-faced icon with sunglasses sits next to Mr. Piotrowski's name, indicating he's especially popular. Eighteen students gave Piotrowski an average rating of 4.1 out of 5, with one saying he's "one of the coolest teachers I've ever had." Piotrowski couldn't be more flattered - or more supportive of online ratings.

"Too many teachers insulate themselves from the people around them," says Piotrowski, who teaches at Sun Prairie High School in a suburb of Madison, Wis. The website "is fundamentally a good way for us to keep tabs on what the people we work with have to say."

Others aren't so sure. The rapid growth of RateMyTeachers.com - which boasts ratings for 887,000 public and private schoolteachers in four countries - is provoking a backlash. The site's creators estimate that hundreds of school districts have cut off Internet access to RateMyTeachers.com. And teachers, many of them stung by blunt or crass comments on the site, are crying foul. They don't think children should be able to anonymously rate their teachers, even though older students have long had that freedom on many college campuses.

"How can you claim that your service offers more than a way for kids to 'bash' teachers?" asks "Pete," a physical education teacher who anonymously posted a complaint letter to an education website. The site is "unprofessional," writes the teacher, who says he doesn't care whether students think his classes are dull - "bored people ... are boring people" - but is offended by "derogatory comments about my physical appearance."

The naysayers don't appear to have any significant effect on the popularity of the website. Last week, the site received its 6-millionth teacher rating, up from just 1 million barely more than a year ago, says cofounder Michael Hussey, a 20-something computer whiz from Maine.

With his partners, Mr. Hussey created RateMyTeachers.com in 2001, partly as a way to give students a chance to compliment their favorite teachers. "It's a site I wanted for myself when I was in high school," he says. "I really liked most of my teachers, but I wasn't necessarily going up and telling them why I liked them because I didn't want to be labeled as a suck-up."

Hussey says he also wanted to give students a forum for critical evaluations. "There was a small handful of teachers who I felt were really more or less wasting my time. But I had nowhere to go for constructive criticism without fear of grade retribution."

On RateMyTeachers.com, students pay nothing to look at ratings or rate their teachers. The site, which Hussey says is profitable, makes money from advertising and, as of earlier this month, from paid memberships for parents.

The site has a small paid staff, according to Hussey, and relies on hundreds of student volunteers who monitor postings for accuracy and taste in the US, Canada and now Britain and Ireland. Anyone can click a tiny red flag next to a comment to automatically remove it from the site pending review by a staff member.

Most of the ratings "are pretty accurate," says Kyle Peavley, a ninth-grader at Edgewood High School in Trenton, Ohio, who monitors ratings of teachers at his school. In some cases, students may rip into teachers who gave them detentions, he says, "but most of the comments are not bad at all."

Kyle thinks the ratings help both students and teachers. "I can decide which teacher to choose by their ratings and the comments," he says. As for teachers, "it gives them a chance to improve, and they get to see what feedback they're getting from students. They get to know how well they're teaching."

The site can indeed be a tool for teachers, says Dan Baldwin, who teaches English at Brooklyn Technical High School in New York City, which has nearly 14,000 ratings, more than any other school. But Mr. Baldwin, who has a 4.3 rating from 208 students, has noticed that only teachers with positive ratings like RateMyTeachers.com. "I would like to think it would be an occasion for teachers to do some soul-searching and change or improvement, but I don't know that happens."

It's hard to imagine how it could, considering RateMyTeachers.com's reliance on anonymity, says Peter Gow, academic dean of Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, Mass., who complains of both "undeserved character assassination" and "undeserved beatification" on the site.

"I've often thought what fun it would be to create several virtual selves and rate myself with extravagant praise. And the thing is, there really isn't anything to prevent my doing just that," says Mr. Gow, who has just one rating - a perfect 5.0 - on the site.

But Baldwin points out that teachers themselves are in the business of rating students. "Turnabout," he says, "is fair play."

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