Yelp! Reviews for music teachers - fair or not fair?

Edited: January 30, 2019, 2:27 PM · It seems like every third TV commercial (USA) is for some site that takes in ratings from the public for a service rendered. “Angies List” for home improvement providers, “Expedia” for hotels and airlines. “Yelp!” for restaurants. Other sites rate or allow for public opinions to be shared on topics like movies, books etc. Amazon thrives on rating. Colleges are rated, even the individual college professors are rated by their students in a very public manner. I’ll bet wedding musicians are rated somewhere online. In short, if you provide a service, educate, or sell to the public you or your product is probably rated. In some threads on there is mention of second and third tier music programs which implies a rating. Who comes up with those ratings?

Not too many years ago these star ratings and reviews, were viewed as threatening to many businesses but it appears now that the more public savvy businesses have embraced these rating sites. Good rating increase exposure and they gain business.

So what about reviews of individual music teachers. You provide a one on one service to (hopefully) paying customers. Is it fair for adult students or parents of younger students to comment on your teaching methods and results in a public forum like say Yelp! ? Would you encourage this?

Replies (29)

January 30, 2019, 2:53 PM · It depends on whether one believes that the ability of the general public to assess the efficacy of music teachers is accurate or not.

A common issue I run into is that students and their parents don't understand why I am focusing on a particular concept in their lessons (tone production, bow motion, articulation, etc.) because they only thing they can get in their sights is something abysmally useless as a metric like chair placement in their school orchestra or honor ensemble. In that case, I'm sure they're not happy with the service they're paying for, because I won't spend the time to work on their audition music...and at the same time, I know that their investment in spending all their time with audition music completely halts their technical and musical progress, and will wreck their entire experience with music in the long-term. Then there are the parents who complain their child makes no progress, yet the child does not practice every day--and don't recognize that this is the problem!

And the big problem with ratings sites is that a lot of those can be unduly influenced by money, or enough people to swing the percentages in their favor, to the point of making any single criticism meaningless. If someone has 100+ or 1000+ positive reviews, does anyone really care about their 1 or 2 low ratings? How about 10,000+ positive reviews?

Edited: January 30, 2019, 3:14 PM · As a parent, I wouldn't cold call anyone my kids interacted with- I always got recommendations. As a teacher, I've never had to advertise/put my name on the internet to pick up students. I've always had a strong reputation and good word of mouth. As a consumer, I've been increasingly suspicious online reviews, which can be manipulated or falsified.
Edited: January 31, 2019, 7:31 PM · As a consumer in general I am very suspicious about online reviews in general - they are just too easily skewed - and too many from someone with an ax to grind.

When it comes to looking for personal instruction in anything - I come down heavily on personal recommendations, knowledge of the person in question, or references from within the community. My violin teacher was already known to me, as well as his reputation, so my choice was easy once I learned he was available. However I would have proceeded if I had not already known someone appropriate, it wouldn't have included Yelp or internet reviews.

Edited: January 31, 2019, 12:56 AM · I would strongly disagree with any form of teacher grading.

If you need a teacher, you are by definition deficient in the subject: so on what basis could you possibly grade the teacher?

My dad taught at a University for 33 years. I got to look at his "grades". One of them remains stuck in my mind: a student claimed my dad did not accept students opinions. Well, hello, you go to a U. to learn, not to stick with what you already think you know.

I believe recommendations and track record of student success are the only way to correctly assess a teacher.

Edited: January 31, 2019, 1:04 AM · I can't be the only person who reads the bad reviews, can I?

I once booked a stay at a hotel and ignored the bad reviews because there were many good reviews. Turns out the good reviews were either lucky or just pads. The bad reviews were 100% true.

Ever since they I always read a few positive reviews, but within reason read *every* negative review. I want to know what you didn't like. I don't care how amazing you think something is, I want to know what went wrong for that one person who posted 1/5 stars instead of what went right for the 99 who posted 4/5 stars.

That doesn't necessarily mean I'll take them at face value, but I do read the negative reviews.

The problem with reviewing individual people is the easy line between offering a critical review and committing libel - in 2019 minor slights can sometimes lead to extreme reactions and once something is on the internet it's on the internet.

Edited: January 31, 2019, 1:32 AM · Michael, I think some things can be user-reviewed and others shouldn't. I personally contribute to TripAdvisor for restaurants, because I like cooking as a hobby and have enjoyed restaurants worldwide. T.A. allows me to choose the best places to eat when I'm travelling, as I've learned to interpret reviews pretty accurately.

Often bad reviews are simply trash, but others are well-circumstanced and should be held into account, especially by reviewers with a high amount of contributions. Raving but unarticulate reviews made by a contributor who has posted only a single review (that one) I ignore.

At the same time, if I were taking private lessons in astrophysics, I would never grade my teacher until I first learned the subject.

January 31, 2019, 1:34 AM · I don't think it would be a good idea. Online reviews are very useful as long as there is a big number of them. That is the only way to sort out the fake, paid, blackmailers and disgruntled. I can't see hundreds of students rating a violin teacher, which would be the only sure way of guessing that the average score is close to truth. With 10-15 reviews any opinion would create score swings and give an unfair score.
Edited: January 31, 2019, 2:26 AM · @ Carlos - I can already see unmotivated, talentless, lazy kids drop violin lessons and blame it on the teacher...
January 31, 2019, 2:10 AM · Yes, it also becomes a popularity contest like

I can attest to its misuse in that particular manner, Dimitri, as I've seen it in action!

January 31, 2019, 2:43 AM · Reviews serve as a motivation for business providers to improve. Reviews also tell them what areas of service they’ve done well and what areas need to be improved. Anonymous online reviews may actually help the teacher as it is almost always too sensitive for such things to be discussed face-to-face.

That said, bad reviews of a violin teacher can sometimes portrays an incorrect picture about teaching quality. For example, unfair review can come from a student who dislikes Suzuki while his teacher insists on Suzuki, a student who think he’s good enough to attempt certain piece while the teacher thinks he’s not there yet, a student who insists on learning vibrato after first two weeks of learning, etc.

Large numbers of reviews are more likely to churn out better assessment, as the law of large number holds. But some extremely negative reviews (even among a forest of other good reviews) can still influence potential students and cause the teacher loss of business.

January 31, 2019, 3:38 AM · The rating itself is definitely not helpful, but what is written in the comment that give an idea on how this teacher teaches can be helpful. If the review system is ever used, I prefer they remove the ratings.

So far a lot of the review I have seen is either very positive or very negative, there is no middle ground. It makes me doubt the accuracy of the comment. Also, I think reviews is more useful in a big city, where there are a lot of teachers and the review can help potential student to narrow down to one. In small town, very often you have like one or two choices, then you may as well try them both out and have your own opinion.

As the technology progresses, I imagine teachers will be making sample lessons on youtube. Any potential students can view and have some idea before signing up for actual lesson.

January 31, 2019, 8:29 AM · i believe that some of the online sites for teachers --, etc. -- have online reviews. I suspect that most o the teachers who use those kinds of sites tend to be inexperienced, so the ratings model may work all right in that context.
January 31, 2019, 10:19 AM · Online reviews should be a great principle. After all, how is it different than gossip (one person talking to another)?

But online reviews have their own peculiar dynamics, and often they don't reflect a fair assessment of anything. They become a place to just vent or or air a grudge. And often our opinions can be severely and permanently biased by even tiny negatives. For instance, every time I think about a supposedly great sandwich place in a nearby town, all I can think of is the one time I was there and there were a couple of flies. I hate flies in a restaurant.

There's parenting style: kids from one part of town here are notoriously coddled--everyone gets a prize! In another part of town, parents are more strict. So an overly- coddled kid who is used to constant praise may write a scathing review of a demanding teacher where the other kid wouldn't.

Reviews CAN be accurate eventually. It's an issue of random sampling, just like trying to count fish in a lake: the more samples you have, the more accurate the numbers. Unfortunately, we are biased easily by either a small sample of opinions and/or whatever the strongest or very last opinion that pops up. If one out of 20 students in a college classroom say the teacher was "mean" that's one thing. But if all 20 write a review and the other 19 say the teacher was "nice" or "demanding but fair" that's another. The problem is that we may only see the one biased viewpoint and take it as reality. Often, it's only the people with very strong opinions, especially negative, that are motivated to take the time to write a review.

Maybe a neuroscientist can chime in here: I'd be willing to be that there is brain chemistry involved. Maybe there is a stronger dopamine response activated by "getting back" at someone rather than by posting a positive review?

January 31, 2019, 10:58 AM · Here's another problem with Yelp or other sites: they can be gamed by using "shills," someone planted to write a "review."

There are two competing businesses in my town--I won't say what kind. The manager of business A, posing as a "customer," wrote a bad review of business B. B sued A, and the manager was fired.

I was kind of associated with A, and the owner of A asked me to post favorable reviews. But I couldn't in good faith post a fake review because I had a conflict of interest.

I think both probably happen frequently: either trashing a competitor, or having friends or employees write favorable reviews.

January 31, 2019, 11:17 AM · They might be good for really egregious stuff, but I think an online review system would be unlikely to be able to help me find a violin teacher who knows their stuff, because most parents can't actually tell good teaching from bad.

I stopped using Amazon (for a few reasons); but the reviews on there are a mix of selection bias; outright fraud; people posting reviews of products when they seem to actually be reviewing the shipping and handling experience; and the occasional thoughtful, un-paid-for review.

January 31, 2019, 12:44 PM · A problem for ratings and reviews is that nearly all are initiated at the completion of the service or thing. You might post a review after you leave the restaurant, after you have seen the movie, once the painter, plumber, carpenter etc is done and has left. But most students who find a good match with a teacher are likely to stay with him/her possibly for years. I would expect that happy, content students and parents are unlikely to post a review while still taking lessons. It skews the rating as others have suggested.

Someone who takes a few lessons, finds the student-teacher fit wrong, and discontinues the lessons should not post a negative review. However, it would perhaps be useful to other potential students if fair feedback like: “hard to schedule lessons because teacher has another full time job” or “noisy teaching environment, could hear students in other rooms” was available.

It is the public nature of reviews on sites like Yelp! that bothers me. One-on-one teaching is such a personal relationship. So much can go wrong. Have any teachers here who had a studen leave, but continued lessons with another teacher ever requested feedback on what went wrong? How did that work out?

January 31, 2019, 3:08 PM · Ultimately I agree with Dimitri - students aren't qualified to write reviews about music teachers - but can see how it would be a good idea for safety/professionalism concerns.
January 31, 2019, 4:03 PM · I'm torn here with conflicting emotions. I don't read or believe on line hotel or restaurant reviews. They can be gamed as mentioned, plus some reviewers don't review a place for what its category is (e.g A hostel in Anchorage I went to had been reviewed as if it were a quaint European boutique chamber d'hote, and it didn't come out well in the review.).

But I think it the the height of hubris to think that someone can't rate a university professor as mentioned above, or a music teacher.

"I don't have to be a great chef to recognize great cooking" as they say.

My music theory teacher in college won a distinguished teaching award as the best teacher in America, but I can say without a doubt that he was the worst teacher I ever had. Even thinking of it now 44 years later makes me nauseous.

And I had full tenured physics professor that handed out a teacher review form saying he wasn't sure why he bothered having us rate him. On the 1-5 point scale system, if he got all 5's the administration would say he wasn't doing enough time with research, and if he got all ones he would be mildly wrist slapped but secretly applauded for spending time where it mattered, with research.

My best college teachers were GTFs not full professors. In fact another horrible teacher was another long tenured physics teacher who probably truly deserved a Nobel in his field but couldn't teach very bright undergraduate or graduate students at all (Any one at that level of physics is very bright.)

Although occasionally one gets naive reviews, pupils are consumers and their opinions matter. Students can tell if they are learning or not.

What I learned specifically from music is that most non-beginner oriented musical instrument teachers have talent and can teach people with a lot of talent, but haven't got a clue how to effectively teach what is a physical skill as well as an artistic skill to the less than gifted. And not that many teachers have learned about research into how to teach physical skills--there's a lot! out there! I don't care what famous string players of the past did: Casals, Heifetz or whoever. I don't automatically think they could teach the 'mediocre' student, or the 'average player.'

Can't have art if one can't do the physical movements. One has to learn those to even be able to express some musical idea.

To be fair, it's not just the music world:

I am also a ski teacher, and trainer in various other sports.I find the same in the teaching of many physical activities. Most people that can do, can't teach very well. And reviews show this.

Edited: January 31, 2019, 5:47 PM · I can tell you that the research on patient satisfaction surveys shows that if medical personnel are perceived as respectful by the survey respondent, the respondent is likely to be satisfied with the treatment. They are satisfied even when the treatment was inadequate or flat out incorrect, and, even when they fail to get better.
Likewise, I suspect most violin students are unable to judge the quality of the service provided, and are likely to confuse the manners of the teacher with the quality of their teaching. Of course, if the teacher (or doctor) is a jerk or unreliable, that is a good enough reason to avoid them. But I doubt you're going to learn whether they are competent teachers by reading decontextualized, anonymous reviews.
January 31, 2019, 5:36 PM · Not fair.

If memory serves, only 15% of American adults master all aspects of literacy. 50% of American adults rate in the lower levels, basically dysfunctional, reading and writing. 35% of American adults can comprehend some rather simple levels of learning from reading, but most of the 35% simply can not communicate by wordsmithing. Now, do the math. How accurate can reviews possibly be?

Sorry, but that's the best we can do.

Actually, things are better now than the 1970s, but still worse than early America by far.

Oh, you don't know about the 1950s and dope?

Anywho, the 1970s saw quite low reading levels in adults due to chemically induced brain damage from the 1950s and 1960s. Children of reading ages who should have mastered literacy in the 1970s didn't because of "freedom" of choice all children deserve (sic) and illiteracy stimulated by damaged genetics from the dopeheads of the 1950s and 1960s.

1980s saw massive expenditures in education, but did not really do much better than stop the downward spiral. Since then, there have been small improvements scattered about, but ignorance and inability is still quite common.

Mr. Browder has a valid point about teaching. I am retired from teaching, experiences from kinder to post graduate. There is a much higher percentage of competent teachers who can do than competent doers who can teach. Maybe I can't play violin, yet, but I can teach you to fix your machine (doesn't matter what machine), teach you to dress game I just taught you how to shoot, teach you to sew, teach you to fly, teach you to cook over an open fire, teach you to trick ski on water, ... .

I don't waste time on street corners or in bowling allies.

January 31, 2019, 7:18 PM · I'm sort of biased because I have a lot of Yelp reviews (as well as other reviews), but I just wanted to add a fun snippet of knowledge: almost none of my students called me because of my reviews. In fact, I'm always hoping they'll say "hey, I saw your great reviews!"

But alas, most people contact me because I was the first one that popped up in Google when they searched for violin lessons on their phone.

Edited: February 1, 2019, 12:31 AM · We dont have a review system here similar to the one you are talking about.
But if we had, I would think it quite ok. If I need to pick a private specialist in medicine I do google and try to find peoples experiences and usually they help a lot. Or then ask friends for recommendations. So I would properly be reading reviews of music teachers too if our system were like that.

I worked a while in a small town (not teaching music) and it sometimes felt funny when the ”reviews” good and bad reached me through my friends but generally I found them to be essentially correct. Gossip is actually generally quite correct though we dont necessarily like to admit it. Very possibly the gossip affected people to either choose me or another professional and I ws actually quite glad about it.

The thing is that I consider that being part of being a professional is getting through your reasons for doing something the way you like to do it. Communicating and giving reasons. So if you dont communicate well and then expect clients to just trust you, you are not doing the work properly. Never have I expected anyone to do as I say only because I say so. So the same goes for teaching music in my nind. If the student or the parents does not understand the reasons you want to do something the way you want to do it is essentially your own problem. Either you are not communicating well or then you actuallly should be open to other ideas instead of just being sure that the way you teach is the correct one.

Im sure that there can be idiots who just hate you, but even with them if you behave correctly it is not a problem, everyone reading reviews understands that not all can be good. If you are getting a lot of bad reviews then there surely is something wrong with your teaching or communicating.

Intelligence is essentially the power to be flexible and able to question yourself and find newer and better ways to suite every student. It may be that if you open your mind to suggestions you might find better ways to teach just this one child or on the other hand you will be better to explain why the thing the student suggests does not work in a wy that the student will accept.

Edited: February 1, 2019, 2:51 AM · As Ken brings up the math issue, I thought I would throw in some more numbers too.

A study once stated that if a consumer has a good experience, he/she will talk about it to an average of three people. If a consumer on the other hand has a bad experience, he/she will talk about it to an average of 12 people (four times more).

That in itself would be enough to discredit user-reviewing as a balanced source of information.

Edited: February 1, 2019, 7:03 AM · Here's some insight from the NY Times (today's online issue):

"Politicians, teachers’ unions and parents in New York have long differed over how to interpret data on the evaluations of teachers.

"In 2016, the most recent year for which information is available, about 96 percent of the state’s teachers were found to be “effective” or “highly effective,” and only 1 percent was rated ineffective. That same year, fewer than 40 percent of students statewide passed standardized exams in English and math."

Just sayin'...

February 1, 2019, 8:53 AM · Private teaching isn't a series of closed transactions but continued guidance over a period of time. The "product" is affected by what the "consumer" (student) puts in - attitude, preparation, mutual discussion of goals. Yes, a private music student pays to access a teacher's knowledge/expertise/inspiration but is (should be) more of an active participant in the "production" compared to a typical consumer service or product. Public sharing of one's experience is not necessarily a bad thing but people have to use their judgment about reliability and credibility of the comments...which is the same as with anything else you see or hear...

Several people have mentioned the psychology of being more driven to provide negative feedback than positive feedback. My "worst" case of departing student was during a time of personal transition, and I had gone to (what I thought were) great lengths to maintain continuity as best as I could. Despite warning signs that a particular family would be difficult to accommodate, I was attempting to keep everyone who didn't ask to leave, when what I should have done was proactively let them go. The situation could have generated a scathing, biased public review, despite that I had posed at least 6 (what I thought were) completely reasonable solutions and they rejected them all.

Most of the time, a student/family will blame something innocuous like scheduling, even if there was another reason, that they didn't want to say. I don't ask although it's not hard to guess a general idea. Very simply, they are seeking a different direction in their learning and find that in another teacher's style/priorities. It's not wrong that I teach this way and they want that way; it's a time of "thank you for everything" and moving on.

February 1, 2019, 10:14 AM · Dimitri wrote, "In 2016, the most recent year for which information is available, about 96 percent of the state’s teachers were found to be “effective” or “highly effective,” and only 1 percent was rated ineffective. That same year, fewer than 40 percent of students statewide passed standardized exams in English and math."

But you don't know what the statewide pass percentage would be if they had teachers that were found "ineffective" by the same measure. Also, teachers can be great and their students can still under-perform for a whole constellation of reasons. When it comes to teaching, there sure is a whole lot of misunderstanding out there -- and it's understandable because "teaching effectiveness" is, at the end of the day, awfully damned hard to measure.

Edited: February 1, 2019, 10:43 AM · Having taught university for 23 years, I know a thing or two about these various evaluation schemes. And my conclusions is that everything has its place. Open, online systems like "rate my professors" is something I do not find useful -- the ratings are all over the map and the comments are not helpful to me. Unlike some others, I will take anonymous student comments to heart if I feel they are issued thoughtfully, and especially if I hear them repeatedly. One has to remember that student "perceptions" are just that ... perception. So one thing I have learned is that I need to be a LOT more careful with my sense of humor in 8-AM lectures than I would with an 11-AM or 2-PM lecture slot. I teach a lab course and some students said they cannot hear me in the back, that's because their stations are near instruments that hum. So next time I can move them all to the center, near where I am standing, for the brief discussion at the start of lab.

The kinds of comments that are NOT useful are things like, "The mean on the exam was 60% ... what does that say about his teaching?" Because the answer is, "very little" when you realize the exam is the same questions that were on the homework basically with the numbers changed in the problems. I once gave a final exam and I told the students that I would use last year's final exam with the ONLY change being re-ordering the multiple-choice answers (and the exam was ALL multiple-choice) and the mean was 70%. Probably 200 students in the course, so it's not a statistical anomaly.

What is needed, more than anything, is a robust system of *peer* evaluation to complement, supplement, and offset the anonymous student evaluations. If you have weird mannerisms or your tests are rubbish or you're hopelessly disorganized, or your explanations are unclear, etc., your colleagues will pick that stuff up.

I'm proud to say that I won a nice teaching award in my College last year. Anonymous evaluations were part of that -- but only part. I can still improve and I value constructive criticism from all quarters -- again, as long as it is issued thoughtfully and respectfully.

February 1, 2019, 2:17 PM · I always read reviews with 3 stars. 5 stars and 1 star are biased (paid).
February 1, 2019, 3:53 PM · Michael, how can someone who's never taken a music lesson possibly be qualified to rate a music teacher?

I can see how a student of several years would know a bit about it (although still comparatively little), but beginners reviewing music teachers for their teaching technique is a recipe for disaster.

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