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The Herald: No letter grades for teachers

State should adopt teacher evaluation system that is more nuanced than letter grades.

November 26, 2012 

South Carolina needs to develop a fair and effective way to evaluate teacher performance in the near future. We agree with critics who say that the new system should entail something more nuanced than handing out letter grades to teachers.

Evaluating educators based on performance is a required part of the state’s exemption from all-or-nothing provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Law. States can opt out of requirements that all students pass math and reading proficiency tests by 2014, but states instead must come up with a standardized way to evaluate teachers.

State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais said last week that he’s still exploring evaluation possibilities. He has stated, however, that he favors a letter grading system because it clearly communicates teachers’ performance.

But the state Association of School Administrators has offered an alternative evaluation plan for teachers and principals that does not include letter grades. As an alternative, it features a four-tiered rating plan ranging from “exemplary” to “unsatisfactory.”

A rating of “unsatisfactory” in any one of five categories would rank a teacher as unsatisfactory overall.

After hearing a presentation from the association, members of the state board of education said unequivocally that letter grades would not be part of the evaluation process. They said that teachers should know that the board is not headed in that direction.

“We’ve got to get rid of A through F,” said board member Michael Brenan, president of BB&T of South Carolina, who is Gov. Nikki Haley’s appointee to the board. “We’d never use that in business to evaluate an employee.”

That, we think, is an important point. Teachers and principals – who are, after all, state employees – deserve an evaluation that tells them specifically what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong. In most cases, it also should be a constructive evaluation, designed to help teachers and principals improve their performance.

For teachers whose performance is unsatisfactory, the evaluation is likely to be an invitation to find a different vocation. But even then, teachers should know why their performance fell short.

Sheila Huckabee, an assistant superintendent for Clover schools, said the educators’ plan is goal oriented and uses a number of different ways to measure performance. While students’ standardized test scores might be part of the evaluations, so would the teachers’ mastery of what they teach in the classroom and whether they make sound decisions.

Weeding out bad teachers is a crucial part of the evaluation process. But a more important objective is to encourage good teachers to do their best and improve the performance of teachers who aren’t working to their potential.

The transition from paying teachers based on tenure to paying them based on merit, which is set to occur in the 2014-2015 school year, will be difficult. Teachers are certain to resent a system that is partly subjective in evaluating their performance.

But that’s the system most businesses in the private sector always have used. It’s simply a better way to reward good performance and get rid of workers who won’t or can’t perform.

But the system should be as fair, unbiased and transparent as possible. Letter grades don’t meet that standard.

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