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Editorial columns

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Honing an imperfect tool

Teacher evaluations – crafted properly – have their place

Whatever one feels about the reliability of the data regarding school staff performance evaluations released by the State Department of Education and reported in the April 8 Journal Gazette, just having a system of evaluation in place and reporting results to the public is a positive step for our state’s educators.

Performance evaluations in any venue are an uncertain science, but the fact that they acknowledge a responsibility to be accountable to the public is the first step in the right direction. The results are far more credible than the offhand assertions of skeptics that the “results do not provide a true and accurate assessment.”

References to what would appear to be contradictory evidence provided by the performance of students’ on ISTEP+ tests are equally nonsensical.

It has become fashionable to blame teachers for the poor performance of their students, but this should be construed as evidence that critics of our systems of public education have an oversimplistic understanding of why so many American children are performing poorly in school.

Those who advocate the use of state competency test results to punish schools and teachers are simply out of touch with reality and demonstrate, with each shouted breath, that they are clueless as to the reasons for failure in our schools.

The reasons why children fail in school are many and they are complex and can be discussed in detail at another time and place; but, let there be no doubt that far too many of our children are failing and this is, without question, one of the most important issues on the American agenda.

It is because this issue is so critical to the future of our society that it demands thoughtful examination on the part of men and women who are more concerned about understanding the dynamics of the issue than they are about assigning blame or spouting meaningless platitudes.

Blaming teachers for the problems in public education in America is like blaming soldiers for the war they were asked to fight. Teachers are as much victims of an obsolete educational process as are the students that they teach.

It is bad enough that they are asked to perform miracles without the necessary structure, support and resources; can we at least spare them the ramblings of an uninformed public?

I am not suggesting that the teaching profession is without culpability, and it certainly must bear a significant share of the responsibility for changing the reality that is education in 21st-century America. Performance evaluations can play an important role in that process, and they can be a powerful tool in driving organizations toward their objectives and in holding employees at all levels of an organization to the highest possible expectations.

Unfortunately, the quality of performance evaluations is often a function of the caliber of management in the organization. If they are to work in an educational environment, principals must be thoroughly schooled in their use. Interestingly, this is an area where school corporations and teachers’ associations could work together toward a common purpose.

Performance evaluations are also another area where schools can learn from business. While the value and functionality of performance evaluations in a business environment span the continuum from pathetic to outstanding, many industries have been engaged for decades in the development of meaningful instrumentation.

The concept of integrated performance evaluations would be one innovation that would offer great promise in an educational environment. Integrated performance management systems are designed to provide ongoing, real-time interface between worker and supervisor and are focused upon helping workers, both professional and nonprofessional, maximize their ability to provide products and services of the highest caliber.

It seems to this observer that it would be in everyone’s best interests if teacher associations would take the lead in working with their school districts to mutually develop such capability. Nothing drives innovation like the compelling need to satisfy demanding and unhappy customers, and there are few people who are happy with the state of public education in America in this second decade of a new century. If ever a time would be right, this would seem to be it.

Mel Hawkins, of Fort Wayne, is the author of “Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America.” He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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