Students have always talked about teachers behind their backs, warning peers about the hard ones, giggling at others.
Mix in the teenage obsession with the Internet, and what results is ratemyteachers.com, a two-year-old Web site that allows students -- or anyone else with Internet access -- to post comments about middle and high school teachers for all to see.
Across the nation, more than 400,000 teachers at more than 23,000 schools have received ratings. The site, based in California, includes commentary on teachers at most high schools and many middle schools in the Washington area.
A group of adults established the site, saying it is especially important at a time when good teaching is being touted as the key to student achievement. The federal No Child Left Behind law requires that every public school class be taught by a "highly qualified teacher" by 2005.
Great teaching is all about the ability to make connections with pupils, and the students themselves know when a teacher does that, said Michael Hussey, a public relations consultant and co-founder of the site. He said ratemyteachers.com gives students a voice in their own education.
"The most important thing is that no matter how smart or intelligent the teacher is, there really needs to be an atmosphere of mutual trust," Hussey said. "In general, if you go through a school where ratemyteachers has really taken hold, you can really determine if that atmosphere is in the classroom."
He said the site, which includes advertising, is breaking even, but he hopes it will soon make a profit.
Critics, including many teachers and principals, said the site's ratings are unscientific, not to mention hurtful. Many school districts across the country, including Montgomery County and Loudoun County, have blocked access to ratemyteachers.com from school computers.
They fear that, instead of improving teaching, the ratings could push already stressed teachers out of the profession by subjecting them to public, although anonymous, barbs.
Linda Bigler, a teacher for 30 years, said she looked at the site just once before deciding she didn't plan to look at it again. Most of the more than 60 comments posted on the site about Bigler, a Spanish teacher at Fairfax County's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology -- where the site has been especially popular -- are positive, but she said the first negative comment she read stung.
"One negative comment, one negative interaction, is the thing that you go home with," she said. "If you have something constructive, you say it in a polite and well-mannered way. The [Web site] encourages the contrary. I think a site like this encourages venting and unloading a frustration for whatever reason."
The site lets students rank teachers on a scale of 1 to 5 -- with 5 being the top grade -- for their easiness, helpfulness and clarity and then fill out a comment section. Comments on the site range broadly, often bashing and praising the same teacher. Teachers get criticized for telling bad jokes, assigning too much reading and having poor hearing.
Hussey said 1,600 student volunteers work with the site, reading every posting before it goes public. They are supposed to exclude comments that are potentially libelous, sexually explicit, profane or unrelated to teaching. A function lets visitors to the site red-flag any comment they feel is out of bounds. Hussey said every flagged comment is reviewed by an adult. Scathingly negative comments stay, he said, as long as they relate to classroom atmosphere. Although teachers have threatened to sue the site, none has done so, he said.
Alek Montgomery, 17, a senior at Park View High School in Sterling, said the site can reveal things about teachers that they should know but that students may be too frightened to tell them face to face.
"Teachers are there to teach us," she said. "If they're not making something clear or they need to slow down, they need to know."
Hussey said the site gets more positive than negative comments.
"She made reading a 'want' instead of a 'need,' " wrote one student about an English teacher in Virginia.
"This is a man unequaled by his peers, except possibly in the case of God, who very well might be one of his peers," a student wrote about a Maryland teacher.
Another dismissed the same teacher as boring.
"Bring two pillows. One for you, and one for your pillow," a student wrote.
Students are not the only ones interested in candid talk about teachers. Some parents said the site, if taken with a grain of salt, could be a good way to learn about teachers their children might encounter.
"I'm curious what they're writing. I think young people would be more curious, and incoming freshmen parents would find it even more curious," said June Cofield, mother of two Howard County students.
But principals and teachers dismiss the idea that the site could be used to improve instruction. The same students can post again and again, or teachers can go online and critique themselves or colleagues -- something Hussey acknowledged has happened. Marshall Peterson, principal of Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, noted that teachers at his school who have been rated often have no more than 12 or 13 comments posted.
"Over the course of two years, that teacher very easily has taught 200-plus kids," he said. "Would you take anything that was a sample of 13 of 200? No."
Hussey said his mother is an art teacher in Maine but has not yet been rated. And if she got poor marks? "I'm not too worried," he said. "I think she's pretty well respected by students."