Terry Stoops has told us a critical element in student success is the classroom teacher. A new Atlantic feature offers some interesting thoughts about the type of classroom the best teachers oversee. The article focuses on the value of student surveys in assessing teachers.

Student surveys, on the other hand, are far less volatile. Kids’ answers for a given teacher remained similar, [Harvard economist Ronald] Ferguson found, from class to class and from fall to spring. And more important, the questions led to revelations that test scores did not: Above and beyond academic skills, what was it really like to spend a year in this classroom? Did you work harder in this classroom than you did anywhere else? The answers to these questions matter to a student for years to come, long after she forgets the quadratic equation.

The survey did not ask Do you like your teacher? Is your teacher nice? This wasn’t a popularity contest. The survey mostly asked questions about what students saw, day in and day out.

Of the 36 items included in the Gates Foundation study, the five that most correlated with student learning were very straightforward:

1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.

2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.

3. Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.

4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.

5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.

When Ferguson and Kane shared these five statements at conferences, teachers were surprised. They had typically thought it most important to care about kids, but what mattered more, according to the study, was whether teachers had control over the classroom and made it a challenging place to be. As most of us remember from our own school days, those two conditions did not always coexist: some teachers had high levels of control, but low levels of rigor.