IBJOpinion

EDITORIAL: Improvement needed, but value of statistics in education limited

 IBJ Staff
June 19, 2010
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IBJ Editorial

Few Hoosiers have any concept of the scope of the information tsunami washing over state education policy, but they’re beginning to find out.

Imagine in the not-too-distant future picking up local newspapers or visiting websites across the state and reading the batting averages of individual teachers and principals. The more their students improve on tests, the better the educator rates.

Then imagine parents storming school offices demanding to know why their kids got stuck with low-rated teachers. Or economic development leaders letting slip that a hot prospect chose a district with better schools.

The idea behind all these stats is to get poor performers to quit. Teachers who thrive will write their tickets.

This, at least, is the state Department of Education’s vision—a market economy driven by statistics. And it may well come to pass. The sea change is “HUGE,” as a state chamber of commerce lobbyist e-mailed IBJ reporter J.K. Wall for an article about the trend in last week’s IBJ.

It’s with mixed feelings that we endorse state School Superintendent Tony Bennett’s attempt to shake up hidebound schools with such a heavy emphasis on numbers.

Bennett is correct when he charges that mediocrity has been tolerated far too long. The statistics will thicken paper trails to justify pushing bad teachers and administrators out the door.

Teachers and administrators repeatedly caution the rest of us that children aren’t widgets, so we shouldn’t expect too much improvement when schools can’t control factors like whether a child got breakfast or did their homework.

Points well taken. Schools will never succeed until parents pick up their end of the bargain. If any party has gotten off easy in the education debate, it’s parents.

But the teachers’ points go only so far in a world where few have complete control over their work environments. People in other occupations are expected to get the job done, and usually get it done better than they did the day before, no matter the circumstances.

However, in Bennett’s obvious, and welcome, disdain for stagnant school performance, it would be easy for him to rely too heavily on statistics. Teaching still is essentially a human-to-human endeavor, and great educations are imparted by smart, committed, enthusiastic people.

Bennett should be flexible as the system is implemented over the next couple of years. It will need tweaking as unintended consequences inevitably emerge.

Then there’s the raft of prickly details to address: Discouraging “teaching to the test,” helping poor districts compete for standout personnel, and deciding whether to “handicap” teachers with students from difficult socioeconomic backgrounds are just a few.

Ultimately, the state will need to find the optimal balance between monitoring progress with hard-headed numbers and nurturing the delicate art of teaching.

It won’t be surprising if, someday, Bennett or his successors do some backpedaling—while still forcing the system to do better.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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