EDITORIAL | Zais, education department not smart in handling of eval hearings

The following editorial appeared in the Florence Morning News on Saturday

Thumbs down to the S.C. Department of Education and State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais for their stumbling, bumbling response to teacher unrest over a proposed new teacher evaluation system.

A crowd of some 300 teachers turned out Thursday night in Florence to hear Zais and company discuss the changes, which are part of the state's proposed waiver from federal regulations under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and, presumably, to answer questions on same. Like their compatriots in Greenville and Charleston, who turned out for similar meetings last month, those assembled weren't happy when they left. Questions weren't really answered, and the meeting was run in a heavy-handed manner that stifled debate the free flow of information.

This is a blunder at a number of levels. First of all, it should have come as no surprise that any proposed change, addition or discussion to the ever-contentious teacher evaluation process would come as fingernails across a chalkboard to South Carolina's teaching population. Like their counterparts nationwide, teachers view evaluation with extreme skepticism.

Generally speaking, they don't think it can be done well — how can anyone possibly understand what I have to go through in my classroom every day? — and certainly don't think someone from outside the public education world could have a clue as to how do it. So the fact that the SCDE was caught by surprise by the teacher onslaught at the hearings on the department's plans for moving forward with new guidelines for evaluations (and more) is, well, surprising.

OK, that happens, but the department's response was clunky and heavy handed. Instead of an open forum, where some steam might have been blown off, teachers and others were required to submit questions in writing. This can be a useful way to conduct a big group Q-and-A, but for angry crowds it smells like censorship. That's exactly how it was perceived here and elsewhere.

Zais' decision to let his subordinates do most of the talking at Thursday's meeting in Florence also seems like a mistake. He was elected to direct education policy and to be the face of public education in the state. A proponent of charter schools, choice plans and other controversial measures, he needs to stand in and take the heat. That he chose not to do so is disappointing. So, a special thumbs down for that.

Having said all that, we should point out that this is not the same as a thumbs up for teachers who may be stonewalling a potentially more rigorous evaluation process. Most teachers concede some sort of evaluation is proper, but teacher organizations have long argued against almost every form of it. That's not useful for the goal of better education, and Zais' missteps don't make it right. There should have been open debate on the critical question of evaluation and there was not.

Smart guys like Zais ought to have been able to figure that out.