Opinion and Forefront

KRULL: Teachers are only part of 'education reform' equation

April 19, 2014

Krull
Some things are just hard to measure.

That’s the real message of the teacher evaluations the Indiana Department of Education released this month. Twenty-five percent of Hoosier teachers were rated highly effective and another 61 percent as effective. Less than half a percent were deemed “ineffective.”

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

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

Sigh.

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 stridency 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 simply by slapping labels and numbers on schools, the people who work in them, and the students who attend them.

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, 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. They tend to like their own member of Congress. It’s easier to blame an institution than it is an individual person.

But another possibility 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.

They’re different children—different people—with different skill sets and different ways of learning.

But whom 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 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 they’re loved. In those ways, they minimize the 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 see it as acknowledging the scope and the complex nature of the educational challenges before us.

Great schools won’t be produced by the political and educational equivalent of pounding one’s fist on the desk.•

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Krull directs Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, hosts the news program “No Limits” on WFYI-FM 90.1, and is executive director of The Statehouse File. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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