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Column: Teachers are only part of education equation


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INDIANAPOLIS – Some things are just hard to measure.

That’s the real message of the teacher evaluations the Indiana Department of Education released Monday. Those evaluations rated more than 25 percent of Hoosier teachers as highly effective and another 61 percent as effective. Less than half a percent of those evaluated were deemed “ineffective.”

Advocates on both sides of the education war responded in predictable fashion.

Teachers said the results demonstrate that they’re doing a good job. So-called education reformers – the folks who demanded the evaluations – said that the results had to be flawed and that the education bureaucracy had rigged the game once again.

Like a lot of other people, I’ve watched the slow-motion train wreck that is the debate over “education reform” with mixed feelings and increasing frustration. I’m an educator myself and the son and grandson of teachers, but I’m also the father of two school-age children.

And what I see, on both sides of this fight, is a lot of people who ought to know better acting as if forcefulness will work better than subtlety in confronting a series of complex challenges. Education now is more complicated because the world is more complicated.

We aren’t going to meet the challenges before us — we aren’t going to serve our children well — simply by slapping labels and numbers on schools, the people who work in them and the students who attend them.

These teacher evaluations are a perfect example.

Education reform advocates argue that the teacher ratings have to be skewed too high if student test scores aren’t correspondingly high. If the evaluation system isn’t faulty, what could account for such high scores for teacher competence?

Well, there are at least a couple of things.

The first might be that the way we Hoosiers look at teachers could track with the way most Americans view Congress. Most public opinion polls show Americans have the same affection for Congress as an institution that they have for an infectious disease.

But they tend to like their own individual member of Congress – which is why they keep re-electing him or her.

It’s easier to blame an institution than it is an individual person.

But there’s another possibility, one that speaks to the challenge of educating today’s students.

My children go to the same school. They’re three grades apart.

They have had some of the same teachers. Inevitably, one child or the other has responded better to a particular teacher than the other one has.

Sometimes, it’s been my daughter who has thrived under a teacher’s mentoring. Sometimes, it’s been my son.

That stands to reason, of course. They’re different children — different people — with different skill sets and different ways of learning.

But who do we hold accountable in those situations — and how do we hold them accountable? Is it the teacher’s fault if my daughter gets an A in math and my son doesn’t? Or is it my daughter’s fault if she received a B in English and my son just got an A with the same teacher?

Or is it something more complex and much, much harder to quantify – the relationship between teacher and student? Do we have to try to understand not just what the student brings to the classroom or what the teacher does, but what they can do together?

The reality is that the educational challenges my children face are simpler than many. In most ways that matter, they’re fortunate. My children come to school every day from a happy, stable home. They arrive in class well-fed, healthy and knowing that they’re loved. In those ways, they minimize the number of variables that can affect academic performance.

The loudest voices for education reform say that taking note of factors such as those is an exercise in evading responsibility, of preparing for failure.

The more rational among us look at another way. We see it as acknowledging the scope and the complex nature of the educational challenges before us.

The brutal fact is that fashioning great schools for our children won’t be produced by the political and educational equivalent of pounding one’s fist on the desk.

Using blunt tools like teacher evaluations isn’t likely to help us solve the sophisticated cultural, economic and technological problems confronting education today. Nor will looking at only one part of a complicated equation — in this case, the teacher variable — help us arrive at the right solution for today’s students and schools.

Some things are just hard to measure.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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