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Posted at 03:00 AM ET, 07/20/2011

By IMPACT standards, Ms. Frizzle would fizzle

Correction: The original version unfortunately called Ms. Frizzle a Miss. Apologies.

Last week a few hundred teachers were fired in the Washington D.C. school district based on a teacher evaluation system called IMPACT that was instituted under former chancellor Michelle Rhee.

There have been many complaints about the system, including charges that it is unfair to teachers who work in high-poverty schools, and that is chief assessment tool is five 30-minute observations by administrators and master educators of teachers each year as they work in the classroom. That’s a total of 2 1/2 hours a year of observation. Some teachers are also evaluated by the standardized test scores of their students, which many argue is an invalid and unfair method of evaluating a teacher.

This was written by Marni Barron, an instructional coach in the District of Columbia Public Schools, and Leigh Dingerson is a community organizer and writer on public education reform.

By Marni Barron and Leigh Dingerson

Recently, we were reflecting on the portrayal of teachers on screen these days. There’s the animated “dance of the lemons,” and Michelle Rhee’s teaching bashing in “Waiting for Superman.” Now comes Cameron Diaz in “The Bad Teacher.” What happened to the teacher as guide? Or the teacher as inspiration? What happened to Ms. Frizzle?

You remember Ms. Frizzle. She was the uber-elementary science teacher of the public television series The Magic School Bus .” The show was first broadcast in 1994, based on the books by Joanna Cole. Miss Frizzle is famous for the amazing field trips that she takes her students on—a fantastic demonstration of experiential learning where students don’t just learn about life on Mars or the workings of the heart and lungs…they go there. Through the extraordinary power of the Magic School Bus, they shrink to size, and take off on educational adventures.

We remember watching episodes of The Magic School Bus with our children, hoping that our toddlers would someday have teachers as dynamic, quirky, creative and flamboyant as Ms. Frizzle. But it seems like today’s teachers are getting all the Ms. Frizzle drilled out of them, both on-screen and off.

Which got us thinking about teacher evaluations and how, like everything else, what you get depends on what you measure.

We both live in Washington, D.C. The recently ended school year marked the second under the District of Columbia’s new evaluation system, called IMPACT. Just last week, the District announced that 206* teachers have been fired for flunking IMPACT this year.

IMPACT was launched in the fall of 2009 by former D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and was immediately lauded as a model for the rest of the nation. While much of the focus and reporting on IMPACT has been on its use of test scores—so-called Value Added Measures—to judge teacher effectiveness, the majority of teachers in DC are not subject to the Value Added components of IMPACT. They teach in grade levels or subject areas that are not tested (yet). For these teachers, 50% of their evaluation is dependent on two, thirty-minute unannounced observations conducted by “Master Educators,” known as “MEs.” Three additional observations are conducted by the school’s principal.

What are these evaluators looking for? What counts? IMPACT established a “Teaching and Learning Framework” (TLF)—essentially a checklist of nine teaching practice areas that each teacher is expected to demonstrate during the course of their 30-minute, surprise evaluation. Within each practice area, there are a set of specific skills that must be demonstrated to qualify for an “effective” grade, and additional skills that must be present for the teacher to be considered “highly effective.” In all, to receive a perfect score on their observation, teachers must demonstrate over 60 strategies and skills over the course of 30 minutes.

Marni is an instructional coach in a DC elementary school. As we discussed teachers in the media, and DC’s Teaching and Learning Framework, she reflected that her role used to be helping teachers become better educators. Under IMPACT, her job is now defined as helping teachers pass their IMPACT observations. We thought about the effect of that change on teachers. And we thought of Ms.Frizzle.

Rating Miss Frizzle

Could Ms. Frizzle teach in D.C.? How would she fare on IMPACT?

We decided to find out, by conducting two formal observations using IMPACT’s nine-point rubric. Assessing teachers’ preparedness for their IMPACT observations is Marni’s job. She relished the chance to be an “ME” for the day.

Our observation found “the Frizz” herding her students on to the Magic School Bus for a trip into the solar system. As her students traveled from Mercury to Jupiter to Saturn to Neptune, Ms. Frizzle allowed them to see, feel, and learn. They determined the gas, oxygen, hydrogen and water levels of each planet they visited. They collected rocks, and analyzed their composition. They worked collaboratively, sharing their knowledge with each other. At one point, the students gently prodded one disengaged student to rejoin the learning experience. Ms. Frizzle helped guide the students—at one point by becoming “lost” herself, and forcing her students to figure out which planet she was on based on scientific clues. They found her.

It was quite a lesson. But IMPACT’s rubric gave no credit to Ms. Frizzle for the experiential and self-guided nature of this exploration to the solar system. She failed to announce an objective for the lesson at the beginning. She did not provide “scaffolded” prompts, or link their learning that day to previous lessons. While she had allowed her students to experience the solar system through a variety of senses and learning styles, she missed several requirements on the IMPACT checklist.

Under IMPACT, a teacher must be evaluated based on the strict rubric. Ms. Frizzle scored only a 2.2 during our first observation. She was “minimally effective.” No matter that her students had had the experience of a lifetime, and demonstrated extensive knowledge of the subject matter at hand. Under IMPACT a teacher could literally take her students to the moon and still be minimally effective. We decided to give her another chance.

The next time we randomly popped in on Ms. Frizzle, she had planned an extraordinary lesson on asteroids. For this, her students were required to intercept and re-direct an asteroid that was hurtling towards Earth, threatening a direct impact on the elementary school where she taught. The students launched into space, where they encountered several extraterrestrial objects (a comet, space junk). How could they determine whether each was the ominous asteroid? The kids realized they needed to analyze the object’s composition, trajectory and speed. When they finally found the asteroid, they figured out that it was made of iron and therefore could be thrown off its course by a magnet. Mission accomplished!

Ms. Frizzle had prepared well for the lesson, having all of the appropriate equipment available on the bus for the student’s discovery process and eventual success. She did better on this evaluation. But she still fell short of “highly effective.” For example, the Frizz did not ask the students any questions. Rather, she provided them with opportunities to determine the relevant questions and then answer them themselves. This sinks her on IMPACT.

The overall average of our dear teacher’s two scores was 2.6—barely into the “effective” range. If we were to conduct three more IMPACT evaluations for a total of 5 (the number of times DCPS teachers are formally observed each year), the outcome for Ms. Frizzle could be dicey. If she were to drop to even a 2.59, she would be considered minimally effective, and subject to dismissal like so many teachers were, just last week.

Something’s Wrong Here

A teacher who is able to create a learning environment that is student-led and teacher facilitated is considered a master of their craft by the education community. But not by DC’s IMPACT rubric.

Of course, Ms. Frizzle is fictional, and her extraordinary field trips aren’t really possible in today’s under-resourced classrooms (no funds for magic school buses in most districts!). But our little exercise of conducting formal IMPACT observations of Ms. Frizzle helped identify a troubling aspect of DCPS’ teacher evaluation system. It’s not that the Teaching and Learning Framework is a bad thing. Particularly for new teachers, having a framework on good practices (stating objectives, checking with students for comprehensive throughout the lesson, etc.) is critical. In a strong professional growth system, teachers would not only be given such a framework, but would also be given carefully constructed supports and extensive professional development in the areas where they seemed to be struggling (IMPACT provides only rudimentary feedback from Master Educators, and little real professional support).

But for creative and dynamic teachers like Ms. Frizzle, the IMPACT rubric is a death-knell. Teachers in D.C. now, according to several we have talked to, are changing their practice to conform to IMPACT’s checklist. Their salaries and their jobs depend on it. Some are tossing out their most creative lesson plans, knowing that if a Master Educator walked in on such a lesson, their job could be put at risk. We’re forcing some of our best teachers to be less creative, to dumb-down their practice…or even to leave the classroom altogether. And yes, some of the city’s dynamic and popular teachers have been fired because their lessons didn’t adhere to the IMPACT rubric.

Evaluation systems should be part of a building process—building great and creative and effective teachers. They shouldn’t be designed with the inflexibility of a mousetrap. “Snap! Gotcha!”

We hope that our children will have teachers with the breadth of skills identified on the IMPACT checklist. But we also hope that our kids will be in classrooms with the many Ms. Frizzles of Washington, D.C.— those teachers who don’t just talk about the planets, but take their students to them. Without revisions, and without recognition that sometimes great teaching doesn’t conform to a checklist, we worry that Miss Frizzle, and teachers like her, may be getting thrown under the bus.

*number of teachers fired based on Post reporter Bill Turque’s adjusted figures

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