10/08/2012 03:31 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2012

How They're Missing the Point in Chicago

It's easy to look at the drama taking place in Chicago's schools and feel both frustrated and sad. Two hot-headed (but no doubt well-meaning) combatants squaring off -- and hundreds of thousands of children have paid the price.

But here's something even sadder and more frustrating: Their battle misses the point. Whatever side "wins," the children won't be any better off. And the reason is that neither the mayor nor the unions have the slightest notion about the nature of performance evaluations. And until they -- and other school districts around the country -- do understand them, similar fights are destined to be just as contentious and just as pointless.

Let me explain. I am not against evaluations. In fact, I believe we all need evaluations. But we need evaluations that lead to improvement, not evaluations that lead to personal defensiveness. We need evaluations that set the stage for all teachers to be their best, not evaluations that force teachers into a one-size-fits-all metric focused on finding deficiencies or that reduce competency into a single variable regardless of the student.

The primary problem with performance evaluations -- whether done in the classroom by a principal or in the corporate world by a manager -- is that they pretend to be objective assessments by an all-knowing boss. That's nonsense, of course. What boss is all-knowing?

Instead, reviews are exercises in intimidation. Teachers know what they need to say to please the boss, and so they say it, even if they don't believe it. They can't admit weakness or a desire to improve for fear that it will be used against them.

Even worse, the teachers know better than anybody -- better than the principals, the parents, the community -- what they need to do what we all want them to do: teach our children. Yet under a system where their primary goal has to be to suck up to the principal, they'll never be allowed to excel. The only thing they'll do is be a mirror, reflecting what their boss wants. Given that, they can't work to improve flaws in the system, because they know bosses don't want to hear about those flaws. The whole thing just becomes a ridiculous dance, where the principal feels powerful, the teacher feels powerless -- and nobody gains. Certainly not the students.

Instead, the goal should be to create an environment to promote self-criticism and lifelong learning, not external criticism. The goal should be for teachers to improve, not be punished for admitting weaknesses, and for principals to get better at creating the circumstances for all teachers to feel safe enough to self-reflect and learn. Teachers shouldn't be competing for a high score in an evaluation process constrained by a fixed allotment of high grades, and principals shouldn't be forced to fixate on finding typically irrelevant imperfections in order to avoid being accused of self-indulgent grade inflation.

The idea is for teachers to constantly self-improve whether or not the principal can see the progress and for principals to win teacher trust and open themselves to system improvement ideas that play to each individual teacher's unique set of skills and strengths so that the school improves as a unit.

How would that work in real life? The mechanics aren't that difficult to figure out once you know what your goal is: to let teachers be free to treat each student as individuals, and teach them in a way that best suits that individual's quest to accomplish the goals that the school has established. Under that system, the principals' job isn't to subjectively punish teachers who don't follow a prescribed path; it's to support the teacher so they can do what they do best. And believe me: If you let the teachers do what they do best, most of them will do just that.

Dr. Samuel Culbert is a researcher and full-time tenured professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management in Los Angeles, California. Culbert holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is an author of numerous books including Get Rid of the Performance Review! How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing -- and Focus on What Really Matters.