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Vail Daily column: Evaluation as the quality killer

Jason E. Glass
Valley Voices

Fueled by federal grant money and state policy, education systems across the United States (including Colorado) are engaged in a large-scale effort to dramatically improve the quality of teachers and principals through evaluations.

These evaluations go where no school system has gone before in that they require the use of student outcomes (in many cases, standardized test scores) to be heavily weighted in the overall merit rating.

For a policy that practically every public school system in the nation is pursuing, the lack of evidence to support its effectiveness is staggering. The number of high-performing education systems that use such an approach: zero. The number of peer-reviewed scientific studies that support this approach: zero.

It seems we have launched the nation’s schools into a grand experiment on whether educator quality can be improved by evaluating, ranking and firing teachers and principals.

Management guru W. Edwards Deming (who fathered the quality movement and the rise of the Japanese industrial and business acumen) was particularly damning in his criticism of evaluation.

According to Deming, “the merit rating system nourishes short-term performance, annihilates longterm planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, and nourishes rivalry and politics. It leaves people bitter, crushed, bruised, battered, desolate, despondent, dejected, feeling inferior, some even depressed, unfit for work weeks after receipt of the rating, unable to comprehend why they are inferior.”

Deming continues, “It is unfair, as it ascribes to the people in a group differences that may be caused totally by the system that they work in.”

Rather than relying on annual ratings, evaluations or performance reviews, Deming suggested different approaches to raising quality. These include trainings on leadership principles and methods for employees, being more selective about hiring in the first place and better training and support of employees on the job.

The supervisor (leader), instead of being an evaluative judge, would instead be a colleague, counseling and listening to employees on a day-to-day basis. The leader would learn from and with other employees, building a team focused on quality. The leader would visit and listen to each employee — taking the time to understand that employee’s work and how to improve the system so that all employees performed at a higher level.

It is often suggested that sound business principles should be applied to education and the quality of education would be better as a result. Indeed, a study of those education systems, both across the globe and within the United States, that have demonstrated and maintained systemic greatness, shows the application of Deming’s ideas of management and not the rank-shame-punish model we’re working to institute in Colorado.

High-performing education systems from Asia, Canada, Europe — and even those high-quality systems within the United States — typically reject a model of quality through evaluation for the same reasons Deming outlined. Instead, they have focused on developing education as a high-status profession — where they are selective about who is allowed to teach, where educators are supported and treated with respect and where teams of professionals work together to achieve genuine quality.

During the past decade, Eagle County Schools worked hard to put in place a sophisticated system that evaluated and ranked employees for the purpose of compensation. In truth, during my time as human resources director, I was a part of this work and now feel a strong moral responsibility to this organization and the community to set us on a better path.

These evaluation and compensation efforts drew praise and national acclaim from political and business leaders who sought to highlight Eagle County as a success story, showing that a system of ranking employees based on evaluations and test scores could be done. But did these efforts result in a globally competitive education system? Our results are certainly improving, but if we are honest, that loftier goal remains elusive.

So today, Eagle County’s approach has shifted dramatically toward the practices seen in the world’s best education systems. While we must adhere to those popular evaluation-based education reforms that are forced on us as the result of the politics at play in Denver and Washington, we chose not to let these define us or our work.

The approaches of the world’s best education systems are remarkably simple: Treat educators as professionals, teach all students to high standards and customize learning to meet each student. The best systems also work against poverty, providing every child an equitable and fair opportunity to succeed.

Because our goal is for our schools to be among the best in the world, these are also squarely where Eagle County Schools is putting its efforts.

Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at jason.glass@eagleschools.net.


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