Teaching Profession

D.C. Evaluations Target Hundreds for Firing or Bonuses

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 15, 2011 4 min read
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District of Columbia school officials plan to give significant pay bonuses to hundreds of teachers—and to dismiss more than 200 others—based on their performance as measured by the city’s teacher-evaluation system, officials announced Friday.

In all, 663 teachers will qualify for bonuses or raises based on high performance in the second year of the IMPACT teacher-evaluation system, while 206 teachers, or 5 percent of the district’s teaching force, will be dismissed.

The spread of scores is similar to last year’s, with the same percentage of teachers—16 percent—earning the top rating of “highly effective” and eligible to receive performance bonuses of up to $25,000. (“Details of D.C. Performance-Pay System Unveiled,” September 10, 2010.) A subset of those teachers will also qualify for large base-pay raises.

At the same time, there was a slight decline in those receiving one of the lowest two ratings, “ineffective” and “minimally effective.”

In all, the results suggest the district’s leadership remains committed to the controversial system, despite turnover in key positions.

Many observers had questioned whether IMPACT, largely viewed as a model by education groups pushing for stronger teacher evaluations, would survive the recent change in the District of Columbia’s leadership. Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, who oversaw the development of the system, left shortly after Vincent Gray won the mayoral election last fall.

Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who was a deputy chancellor under Ms. Rhee, has preserved most of the system, while streamlining certain features and allowing for principals to retain a limited number of teachers who fall below the required performance level.

In an interview Friday, Ms. Henderson said that the data show the system has been implemented “evenly and objectively” in its second year.

“I think we all hope that at some point we’ll see the ‘highly effective’ number start to move up, but big swings would indicate potentially other problems,” she said.

Second Year Results

IMPACT debuted in the 2009-10 school year. It is one of the first operational teacher-evaluation systems in the nation to grade teachers using a combination of classroom observations and a measure of growth in students’ test scores. The system has been a bellwether of sorts as states and districts around the nation scramble to overhaul their own teacher-appraisal mechanisms.

It also has been subject to intense scrutiny by educators, and has drawn criticism from the Washington Teachers’ Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

In IMPACT’s second year, far more of the district’s 4,100 teachers scored well than poorly. A majority, 69 percent, scored at the two highest levels in the system.

The fact that the percentage of top-performing teachers is identical to the number who scored at that level last year shows some consistency, observers noted.

“It suggests the district has set the rubric where it wants it,” said Susan Headden, a senior writer and editor at the Washington-based think tank Education Sector, which released an analysis of IMPACT in late June.

The district will move to dismiss 65 teachers who received “ineffective” ratings, along with 141 “minimally effective” teachers whose performance didn’t improve enough over last year. It is the second year running in which the school district has dismissed teachers for performance reasons; such dismissals remain rare in the United States. (“New D.C. Evaluation Process Targets Hundreds for Firing,” August 11, 2010.)

A handful of teachers who lost their positions due to budget or enrollment declines, and could not find principals willing to hire them, will also be let go.

Other teachers’ performance improved enough to avoid being terminated. Of the 566 teachers who last year received the rating of “minimally effective,” the second-lowest under the system, 58 percent earned an “effective” or “highly effective” rating this year and will keep their jobs.

Union Reaction

Nearly every aspect of the IMPACT system has been the subject of debate among the teaching force, ranging from the detail of the skills framework on which teachers are graded, to its inclusion of a “value-added” measure of student academic growth.

In general, the WTU has argued that the system is too punitive and not focused enough on improving teacher skills. It has sued the district, so far unsuccessfully, to allow teachers to contest their ratings.

WTU President Nathan Saunders also contends that the system unfairly penalizes teachers who work in the city’s most disadvantaged schools. Although a full-scale analysis wasn’t available at press time, Mr. Saunders said that teachers in the city’s poorest wards were least likely to qualify for bonuses and more likely to receive low ratings.

“I think it proves we’ve got a long way to go,” Mr. Saunders said. “It still remains an imperfect system, and it’s only going to be improved as a result of some friction that we’re obviously going to have to exert.”

But Ms. Henderson pointed to the data showing teacher improvement as evidence that the system gives better feedback to teachers.

“To all of the people who said the point of IMPACT was only to fire teachers and weed teachers out, this data goes to show it is a developmental tool,” she said. “Giving teachers feedback five times a year allows multiple opportunities to improve.”

Not all teachers share her interpretation.

Elizabeth Collins, a teacher at Calvin Coolidge High School, said she feels that the system is more rigorous than its predecessor, has a clear mission statement, and has valid categories of performance. But many teachers remain confused about what specifically IMPACT reviewers are looking for, she said.

“The scores have gotten better, but does that mean the teachers have gotten better? I don’t know,” said Ms. Collins, who said she received an “effective” rating. “I don’t feel like I’m improving at all, and that’s upsetting to me.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2011 edition of Education Week as D.C. Evaluations Target Hundreds for Firing or Bonuses

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