The Palmetto State Teachers Association, along with educators, took minor solace this week in the proposed A-F grading systems for teacher evaluations being dropped off of this year’s model.

They, or some nomenclature put in their place, may be back next year, but we agree with Deputy Education Superintendent Charmeka Childs when she said the focus this year needs to be on developing how teachers are evaluated, not a grade only they would see.

Educators see the grade system as degrading. Superintendent of Education Mick Zais advocated for its implementation so teacher assessment terminology would match up with hoped-for changes to school assessment. South Carolina began expressing its federal report card grades in A-F lingo last summer and received plenty of flak for it, although we see it as painting a clearer picture for the public than the grayish “at-risk” or “needs improvement” vocabulary still used in state report cards.

The clearest language possible is needed when it comes to evaluations. “Needs improvement” is the type of mark we received in elementary school, you know, when grades weren’t really all that important. When grades took an effect on our future, we received letter grades, but nevertheless, if a proper evaluation system is put in place, broadly accepted grading jargon will likely follow.

South Carolina is working on a model, but education advocates have put the agency’s plan on blast for being invalid and unreliable. Here’s the problem in a nutshell: The state has to put forth a comprehensive measure for evaluating teacher competency, but the act of teaching is so varied and subjective that it all but defies an accurate assessment.

The evaluation is a required part of the state’s exemption from the all-or-nothing provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law. States granted the waivers are exempt from requirements that all students score proficient on state-standardized math and reading tests by 2014.

Zais is pilot-testing the educator evaluation proposal this coming school year and so far, 47 schools in 14 districts have signed on to help it – most of the schools being overwhelmingly rural. More are expected to be added before classes start next month. The U.S. Education Department approved the state’s specific plan for evaluations earlier this year, which disappointed those disgruntled educator groups offering their own plan.

Each participating school is piloting four components for evaluating teachers: classroom observations, achievements made by their students, the performance of the entire school, and a fourth method chosen by the district.

School officials will choose one of two ways to handle classroom observations, either by averaging the scores of several observations or requiring several evaluators to reach agreement.

Using human observers seems to be a reliable way to assess a teacher’s performance, but the cost of the resources required for a comprehensive human “grade” – dozens of hours spent observing each teacher – can be prohibitive and problem-wracked. The same goes for just measuring the output. In theory, if students improve during a teacher’s purview, he/she or the school itself has done a good job, but there’s the issue of mitigating the influences of outside-the-schoolhouse factors – demographics, genetics, home life.

There are some hitches with all those options. For the fourth a la carte method, we suggest schools go by student and/or parent feedback. What makes a good teacher is not always reflected on a test score. Teachers awaken your mind in ways you never thought possible. They develop your non-cognitive skills – patience, optimism, grit, awareness, self-control – that will help you succeed in ways outside of school. They’re funny, they’re demanding, they’re role models for how you want to live your life.

We can’t grade that kind of knowledge, exactly, but we know it when we see it. And we need it in every classroom in South Carolina.