Failure labels aren’t answer

Etienne R. LeGrand is an education strategist, publisher of Culture Effect and a writer.

Georgia’s teacher evaluation system, a reform du jour, is used to rate teachers on student growth and to make hiring, firing and compensation decisions, including bonuses.

But what about helping teachers become better at what they do?

Given how essential quality teaching is to student achievement, you’d think the state’s evaluation system would also be used to provide meaningful feedback to teachers about their skills so they might improve and build on what was learned. Questions of fairness and efficacy arise because it doesn’t.

Georgia’s evaluation system, like other systems, are predicated on the belief that our public education system is filled with incompetent, low-quality talent that needs to be smoked out and removed. This belief is supported by data that finds teaching talent is largely drawn from the bottom third of college graduates.

If we are to attract higher-quality talent to teaching, then how public education develops, encourages and engages teachers must become a higher priority. Compensation is part of the answer, but it’s not all of it.

Effective teacher evaluation systems must not only identify who stays and who goes, but also produce useful data that can help more teachers become best in class. I agree our teacher preparation programs in schools of education must do a better job on the front end; otherwise, it’s garbage in, garbage out. The solution lies in “both/and,” not “either/or.”

Gallup research finds employees who have opportunities to learn and grow, receive feedback about their progress, and are encouraged, made to feel their opinions count and praised or recognized are more satisfied and engaged in their work. More engaged employees are more productive ones, and this leads to greater results for the organization, whether in profits or higher-achieving students.

Not many organizations of any type get this right. Worldwide, 71 percent of the workforce is either underperforming or actively undermining their work, even those who graduated in the top half of their class.

As Georgia educators at the state, district and school level continue to improve upon this system, they might do well to reconsider its aim.

Every organization needs a way to remove low performers and determine compensation. But, it also benefits from a talent management system that enables it to attract the best people and invest in their getting better and better. My few friends who’ve happily worked for many years at the same organization say the trick has been they were given opportunities to acquire new skills, learn new things, and do meaningful work. Teachers have the “do meaningful work” part covered.

Further progress on this front requires a mindset shift among education leaders about their insistence that getting rid of “bad teachers” is enough to get to higher teaching quality, and that teaching skills can’t be developed beyond what they are today. Teaching skills can be grown to keep pace with changes in the learning environment with the right techniques and investment.

High-quality teaching results when teachers can constantly learn what it takes to get better at teaching. Leaders have to believe that getting better is possible, and then put their money where their mouth is. Otherwise, school districts will continue to comply with state mandates to conduct teacher evaluations that don’t tell us very much and don’t result in higher achievement for more students.