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Students turning the tables

Teachers rated via Web site; some Utahns not smiling

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After years of living with letter grades teachers hand down, Utah kids are offering up a few of their own — for all the world to see.

Utah junior high and high school kids are joining a national wave of grading the graders online at www.RateMyTeachers.com.

Of course, some teachers get low marks. But students mostly are tipping their hats to the heads of their classrooms.

Still, some adults give the site two thumbs down for lack of accountability and grief potential. In short, says Elaine Tzourtzouklis, president of Wasatch UniServ, a regional branch of the Utah Education Association: "Public education has enough problems as it is."

The site's creator, however, believes one of those problems is the absence of student voices in how to improve public education. As he sees it, students' anonymous online

ratings just might force some instructors to examine the way they teach.

"We're not looking to disparage the profession," said Michael Hussey, the son of a teacher who co-founded the site with a Bakersfield, Calif., company run, in part, by teachers. "We wish to improve it."

RateMyTeachers.com, established in 2001, has piqued pupils' curiosity nationwide. Hussey estimated 10,000 teacher reviews are submitted daily; about 90 percent are published.

Some schools, mainly along the coasts, are extraordinarily active. For instance, 13,304 students had reviewed teachers at Brooklyn Tech High School, where a single English teacher there had 128 reviews, most favorable, as of Friday.

By comparison, Fremont High in Weber County, a relatively active site, listed just 16 reviews.

All Fremont's reviews were positive. So are many others.

Christy Call, an English teacher at Ben Lomond High in Ogden, is rated as "by far the most dedicated educator I have ever been lucky enough to know."

Arna Clark, an Alta journalism teacher, is said to be "the best."

"She is so awesome at teaching things, she has improved my grammer (sic), and made me want to be better at speech. She's creative too!" one student wrote.

Clark, like other teachers contacted for this article, didn't know she was listed on the site.

"I'll take that to my boss, and maybe I'll get a big Christmas bonus," she joked.

Students anonymously post teacher ratings on a scale of 1-5 in three categories: easiness, helpfulness and clarity. All but the "easiness" score are factored into an "overall quality" rating, punctuated with smiley or frowny faces — with sunglasses, for popular teachers.

Student reviews are submitted to the Web site. Some 1,600 student volunteers — two of whom live in Utah — and other workers examine the reviews for "red flags" before posting them. Also, people reading published reviews can raise red flags of their own, and the comments are pulled from the site pending further review.

Red flags include: vulgarities, name-calling and comments that are sexual in nature or refer to a teacher's race, religion or physical appearance. They also cannot insinuate or state mental, substance abuse or legal problems.

The idea is to keep the site meaningful.

It also could avoid legal problems like the ones Utah boy experienced three years ago.

A Milford High Student was arrested for saying on his Web site that his principal was "the town drunk" and speculating about faculty members engaging in drug abuse or homosexuality.

But criminal libel charges, brought against Ian Lake under an 1875 law, were dismissed by the Utah Supreme Court last year. The court said the old libel statute was "overbroad" and unconstitutional.

Prosecutors dropped additional defamation charges last January.

Hussey, a 25-year-old Internet consultant and Maine resident, has received backlash and been threatened with lawsuits.

School districts apparently have at least threatened to bar students from accessing the site on school computers.

A New York teacher even complained to that state's Attorney General's Office that the site was libelous and should be pulled, Hussey said. But the office instead found the site was within the constitutional realm of free speech.

But are the site's comments actually meaningful?

Utah teachers' opinions are mixed.

On one hand, Clark said, it's helpful to receive feedback from students. On the other, she'd worry about a student spouting off about a teacher who issued a failing grade, for instance.

Such may be the case with a Tooele County schoolteacher, who "needs to be fired," according to one reviewer.

And those kinds of comments — which could have been submitted by anyone, from an ex-wife to an angry co-worker — have little constructive quality, UEA President Pat Rusk said.

"There's no regulation, so anyone can say anything they want, so why let that carry any weight?" Rusk said. "It's freedom of speech, so I guess they can do it. . . . But if you want evaluation, poll the class. Then, you know it's genuine."

E-MAIL: jtcook@desnews.com