Black teachers appear to be less confident that they can excel in teacher-evaluation systems and are less likely to participate in bonus programs tied to them, according to a new working paper.
The study examines data from the District of Columbia’s teacher-evaluation system, known as IMPACT. But the researchers say the findings have broad implications for school districts beyond the nation’s capital: Incentives for good teaching that are based on evaluation scores might not be as motivating for teachers of color.
The research comes at a time when district leaders are actively seeking to recruit and retain teachers of color, prompting questions about how to elevate good teaching in a way that’s equitable.
“The underlying story is that systemic racism permeates our [school] system,” said David Blazar, an associate professor of education policy and an author of the report at the University of Maryland. “Black teachers are experiencing the system quite differently than white teachers.”
Between the 2009-10 and 2015-16 school years, Black teachers in the district’s public schools were 3 percentage points more likely than white teachers to be threatened with dismissal, and 5 percentage points less likely to be eligible for salary increases, the researchers found. Yet Black teachers make up the majority of the district’s workforce. In all, those disparities are likely related to the overrepresentation of Black teachers in high-poverty schools, which may not have environments conducive to high-quality teaching, the researchers said.
D.C.'s IMPACT, which ties teachers’ job security and paychecks to student test scores, was first implemented in 2009. Under the system, teachers who receive “ineffective” scores are subject to dismissal, and teachers who score “minimally effective” or “developing” scores could face dismissal if they don’t improve.
Hundreds of teachers have indeed been fired over the years—making the District of Columbia a bit of an outlier. Though most states overhauled evaluation systems in this time period, their evaluation ratings resulted in far fewer terminations. (Many states have since walked back some of their evaluation reforms.)
D.C. teachers who are rated “highly effective,” on the other hand, are eligible for financial rewards and professional opportunities. They can choose to opt into a program that gives them an immediate one-time bonus of up to $25,000 and, if they receive the same rating the following school year, a permanent increase to their base pay. The base-pay increase could be between $7,000 and $27,000, depending on the teacher’s experience and education level.
But there’s a catch: Teachers who opt into these financial perks give up some job protections. Usually, if their positions get eliminated, teachers retain their pay and benefits for a year while looking for a job, or they can take a buyout. They lose that right if they participate in the bonus program.
The researchers found that between 2009-10 and 2015-16, roughly two-thirds of “highly effective” eligible teachers opted into this program, which is part of a collaboration with the Washington Teachers Union. But Black teachers were less likely to opt in to the salary incentive than white teachers. (The sample size of Hispanic and Asian teachers was too small for researchers to draw any conclusions into those educators’ behaviors.)
“When you opt in, you’re suggesting, ‘I think I’m going to be successful here,’” Blazar said, adding that Black teachers may have lower expectations that they will thrive in the system, perhaps because of past experiences or expectations of bias.
After all, IMPACT was unpopular—and feared—among teachers when it was first implemented. The Washington Teachers Union president at the time said in 2011 that “IMPACT is unjust in the context of racist, of discriminatory” practices.
Rates of opting into the salary incentives have fluctuated over the years. During periods of uncertainty, like in the first year of implementation, and in the first year after the system’s 2012 redesign, opt-in rates were low across the board—but there was upwards of a 20 percentage point gap between Black and white teachers. When overall opt-in rates increased in the second and third years of implementation, Black teachers were still about 15 percentage points less likely than white teachers to opt into the salary incentive.
In the 2014-15 school year, once the district restricted eligibility for the salary incentive to teachers working in high-poverty schools, the gap in opt-in rates shrank to just 3 percentage points.
Do the evaluation incentives work to improve teaching?
This study is part of a research-practice partnership with D.C. public schools. District leaders helped pose the research questions, provided access to the data, and gave feedback on analyses.
Past research has found that lower-performing teachers are substantially more likely to voluntarily leave the D.C. school system than their higher-performing counterparts, but when they do stick around, they tend to improve. When struggling teachers leave, they are replaced by higher-performing teachers—and student achievement improves.
The researchers of this new study analyzed the data to understand how teachers perform on the classroom observation rubric, which counts for up to 75 percent of the evaluation score. There are nine different teaching tasks on the rubric, which researchers ranked in terms of difficulty based on the average scores across all teachers in the district.
For example, conceptual tasks like “develop higher-level understanding” and “engage all students in rigorous work” were among the most difficult, while more routine tasks like “maximize instructional time” and “build a supportive, learning-focused classroom” were among the easiest.
The researchers found that when Black teachers were threatened with dismissal, they improved on both the least and most difficult tasks—but significantly more so on the easier tasks. Black teachers were also more likely to improve on these easier tasks when they responded to the salary incentives.
“You’re going to exert more efforts on tasks and activities in which you expect to do well,” Blazar said. Plus, the study notes, past research in sociology has suggested that experiences of discrimination and marginalization can create a heightened need to focus on tasks with the greatest expectations of success.
Alejandro Diasgranados, the 2021 D.C. teacher of the year who is starting his eighth year in the district, said there is some apprehension and skepticism toward IMPACT, especially among teachers of color. That skepticism was bolstered by a recent study that found a considerable gap in the evaluation scores between white teachers and teachers of color. Many teachers also said the evaluation system created a negative school climate.
“The research really showed that the IMPACT system benefits white teachers more than it does teachers of color,” said Diasgranados, who is Afro-Latino and who added that he personally has benefited from the salary incentives as a “highly effective” teacher. “I do think it brings growth to the students, but it kind of creates a competitive environment.”
Even so, Diasgranados pointed to findings that teachers of color who are rated “effective” and above are retained at a higher rate than the overall district average or average of white teachers. Diasgranados, who is earning his doctorate degree, said he would like to see additional research to understand why these teachers are staying—and whether those factors can be replicated elsewhere.
In his own experience, having a supportive school principal has been crucial, he said. His principal at Aiton Elementary School has given him the opportunities to grow in the classroom, provided him with actionable feedback, and encouraged him to take risks, he said.
These findings may not be unique to D.C., researchers say
D.C. public schools has responded to past research with several changes, including adding anti-bias training for evaluators. The district says it is continuing to consider possible evolutions to the system.
“We are not surprised to see racial gaps persist within IMPACT assessments, as we know that systemic racism permeates virtually every institution and system in our society,” Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said in a statement last year. “We must be intentional in examining and disrupting the ways that our education system perpetuates systemic racism.”
Blazar said district leaders in D.C. should continue thinking about ways in which they can tweak the design of the system to address potential biases. And district leaders elsewhere should take note of these findings when they’re thinking of how to design and roll out a teacher-evaluation system so that all teachers have equal chances to reap the benefits, he said.
While some of the components of the teacher-evaluation system are unique to D.C., “systemic racism is not distinct to this area,” Blazar said. In fact, he noted, these patterns might be more pronounced elsewhere, in districts with less diversity among teachers and administrators.