At Rate My Teachers, the kids give the grades

The best teacher I ever had was a man named Bruce MacLean. I still remember his high school lectures on history, his hilarious stories about partying in Europe, the controversy about him hanging a Soviet flag in his classroom near the tail end of the Cold War. Bruce had long hair, acted like a wild hipster, buried us in homework — and actually prepared us for college.

I bring Bruce up because I used him to test, a crowdsourced site in which today’s students rank their teachers. My son had pointed it out when complaining about a tough educator, and we checked out comment after comment that backed up his point of view. It’s the Yelp of education.

So I punched in Bruce MacLean and sure enough, the score was on point. 5 stars for clarity, hinting at his smoking intelligence and tales. 4 stars for helpfulness, indicating huge amounts of homework. And 3 stars for fairness — he’s still a tough cookie on grades.

RateMyTeachers is growing rapidly, with traffic tripling in the past year to 800,000 unique visitors per month. What’s interesting is that, unlike Yelp or other business review sites, where the rankings could be gamed by many anonymous voters associated with the organization, at RateMyTeachers the reviewers are hundreds of children vs. one human being. I suspect it’s tougher for teachers, if they were inclined, to try to boost their own rankings, because they are outnumbered … so the site is remarkably accurate. My son ran down the list of his teachers’ reviews and said, “Yep. Oh yeah. Definitely right!” For my former teacher Bruce, the student quotes were: “Toughest teacher I ever had!” “My favorite teacher EVER!”

A year ago, I ran into Bruce at a bar while visiting my hometown in Vermont. He’s on the verge of retirement and plans to travel the world with his wife. His hair is shorter and salty, and he still mesmerizes, cutting through debate with a sharp laugh. Clear, mostly helpful, and more tough than fair. It’s amazing that even when kids collectively gather wisdom, the grades are spot on.

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