WASHINGTON – A Web site that encourages students to rate their teachers has been banned from hundreds of schools across the nation and administrators are saying it's a distraction and an abomination.
One official in Maryland called RateMyTeachers.com "personally and professionally repugnant" and suggested that teachers might have legal recourse against the Internet forum's operators.
"It's akin to medieval public flogging," said Brian Porter, spokesman for the Montgomery County Public Schools (search), which said the Web site is filtered out automatically by a central Internet firewall, which blocks student access to anything deemed non-instructional or harmful to children.
"It's a gross violation of teachers' privacy," he added. "There is nothing funny about subjecting a teacher to random and caustic remarks by students."
Other schools and counties have intentionally blocked the site, which now boasts 450,000 ratings, according to operator Michael Hussey.
But not everyone considers RateMyTeachers.com (search) a pariah. In fact, it has touched off an impassioned debate over free expression, teacher privacy and whether educators are just too thin-skinned.
"They think that it's a forum for students to bash their teachers, but that's not the case," said Hussey, 25, a former substitute teacher and Internet entrepreneur who came up with the idea for creating Web sites that allow visitors to rate things — first trying pets, but finding real success with teachers in 2001.
"I remember I had valid opinions of my teachers in high school and remember the evaluations at the end of my college semesters and know the professors used to look at them and found them useful," he said. "I thought that high school and middle school teachers would benefit from students' opinions."
Students can log on and either enter the name of new teachers or rate existing ones on the site, with marks ranging from one to five for clarity, easiness and helpfulness. They can also leave commentaries. Hussey said he has 1,800 student "administrators" who act as screeners for each posting that goes up, filtering out bad language and inappropriate comments.
"It's just an outlet for student opinion," he said. "Any student could go onto any other Web site to bash their teachers. At least we keep it clean."
To which Porter replied, "apparently not clean enough, if our Internet blocking system is filtering it out."
A quick look at the site reveals that most teachers listed on the site are getting positive ratings and comments.
On the Brooklyn Tech High School page, for example, which is the most-rated with close to 14,000 postings, one will find comments for one English teacher like, "She cares. She works us and knows her stuff. We are expected to work. I read more and thought more in her class than ever."
Unfortunately for this teacher, she also has her detractors. In one of the more vivid commentaries found, a student declares, "Do you feel a creeping, shirking sensation when u (sic) see serpents & the slithery, venomous creatures w/their deadly eyes & wicked faces? That's how she impresses me."
Many teachers just garner numeric ratings, rather than accolades or rotten tomatoes.
Charles Herndon, spokesman for the Baltimore County Schools (search), which has also blocked access to RateMyTeachers.com, said the site was a plain distraction to students and deemed non-educational by officials.
"It was creating quite a buzz," he said. "We determined there wasn't any kind of instructional benefit to it and went ahead and blocked access."
While officials like to point out that students are free to log on to the site on their own computers, on their own time, Hussey and fans of his site — which he said include teachers who write to him — believe the officials who loathe it are simply the ones getting bad ratings.
"My experience is that teachers who treat students like human beings — are fair and consistent —receive good ratings," said one poster. "Why not ‘out' those who are terrible as well as congratulate those who deserve it?"
But Porter said it is the anonymous nature of the site, and the potential for teachers to be libeled, that makes it "harmful and intrusive."
"There is really no use for a site that perpetuates a degrading evaluation of teachers by anonymous students that purport to be engaging in fair judgment," he said.
Janet Bass, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers (search), said she has heard no formal complaints from teachers but agreed with Porter that the site is inappropriate.
"A lot of these things are subjective and have nothing to do with the reality of what is going on in the school," she said. "I think they should be ignored."
Web sites that rate the performance of certain corporations and their stock have been sued in recent years, and most of the cases have been either dismissed or settled out of court, said experts.
Proving libel is difficult, and unless students post statements about teachers that are blatantly untrue and intentionally harmful, teachers will have to live with the commentary, said David Sobel, privacy expert with the Electronic Privacy Information Center (search) in Washington, D.C.
"It very much depends on the circumstance, but short of libel, it's a protected activity," he said. "I don't see any basis of taking legal action against the site because it's legal exchange of information and ideas on the Internet."