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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 09/01/2011

Teacher: How to improve D.C.’s IMPACT evaluation system

Stephanie Black taught for four years in a D.C. public elementary school in the Petworth area before deciding to take a break for the 2011-12 school year because she was, she said, “overwhelmed" by the controversial IMPACT teacher evaluation system, “burning out because of the crazy hours” she worked, and a desire to spend more time doing things outside the classroom. She plans to return to teaching.

She recently emailed D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Jason Kamras, chief of Human Capital for the school system who is in charge of IMPACT, with the following simple suggestion about how to improve the assessment system that was initially implemented when Michelle Rhee was running the city's schools.

In 2010 and 2011 Black was rated “effective,” and, she wrote in an email, last year likely could have been highly effective if she had been in a different IMPACT group of teachers.

By Stephanie Black

I came to D.C. Public Schools in 2007, a time when ineffective teachers were essentially free to spend their days doing whatever nonsense they so wished to do. During my second year of teaching, the teacher next door to me often had her students practice cursive for a majority of their school day, and another teacher down the hall spent much of his teaching time in the hallway talking on his cell phone. It horrified me to see it going on then, and I would never want such teachers to be able to find a place in D.C. Public Schools now.

After Michelle Rhee was appointed chancellor in 2007, the IMPACT teacher evaluation was created so that DCPS and principals could have a solid way of dealing with educators who were doing less than acceptable work in their positions. Rhee quit last October and Henderson, her deputy, succeeded her.

Not surprisingly, over the past two years, people have disagreed about many things relating to IMPACT, which evaluates teachers with a “value-added formula” that involves student standardized test scores in some cases and observation of teaching style by administrators and Master Educators in all cases. Cash bonuses are given to teachers who meet specific criteria and are rated “highly effective.” Critics have said the system is arbitrary and punitive and basically a system to allow district leaders to push out veteran teachers while providing little professional development for to make teachers who stay better.

But no one has disagreed about whether ineffective teachers should be in our classrooms (although there has surely been debate about what constitutes an “ineffective” teacher).

Today, I see IMPACT creating a culture in which teachers are more worried about their jobs and professional reputations than they are about what and how well students are learning.

Teachers are becoming increasingly defensive about feedback, and about which category they fall into — ineffective, minimally effective, effective, or highly effective.

IMPACT is also dividing our teachers and schools in the wealthier wards and those in the low-income wards, as teachers in the schools most affected by poverty become increasingly restless watching high percentages of the teachers from the wealthiest schools get not just the bonuses, but also the recognition that comes along with being labeled “highly effective.” ( Of the 663 teachers who received top ratings in this year’s IMPACT evaluation, only 61 worked in the 41 schools in the two poorest wards.)

Thus, instead of our teachers and communities coming together to wonder why we have these disparities and to look for practical economic and political solutions, a futile, yet not completely unreasonable, culture is forming in which the attitude is more of, “Well, if I taught there, I could be highly effective, too.”

Furthermore, within schools where the culture should be one of community and collaboration, I see teachers being forced into competitive environments in which teachers in different evaluation “groups” are skeptical of each other, and where collaboration is being replaced by unhealthy competitiveness.

I propose that DCPS reduce the four teacher rating categories in IMPACT to just two: ineffective and effective.

This would still allow DCPS and administrations do what they weren’t able to do prior to IMPACT — keep ineffective teachers out of the classrooms. And such a change would have a range of benefits, including making teachers less likely to act defensively, to fudge data, or even to cheat when they are focusing less on which category they will fall into, and more on what the students are learning.

Instead of clawing to get into the next highest category, teachers would be able to have open conversations with their administrators and colleagues about their students’ levels and progress; this honesty and openness will allow schools to think more realistically about changes necessary to increase student achievement.

Likewise, administrators and master educators will be able to have open discussions with their teachers that focus on the teachers’ strengths and weaknesses, and that don’t always come back to where a teacher can pick up a point here or there, but that really focus on the teachers’ abilities. Teachers will still be able to receive specific and useful feedback, so that aspect of the evaluation system will not be compromised.

The RAND Corporation recently concluded from studying the effects of merit pay programs in low-income schools in New York City that such programs do not have an effect on student achievement or teachers’ reported behaviors; thus, removing the category “highly effective” will seem to have no negative impact on student achievement, as its main function is to determine which employees will receive merit pay bonuses.

What will help teachers are high-quality administrations, clear definitions of good teaching, environments that foster and support the practice of continuous improvement, and effective professional development. Removing the “minimally effective” and “highly effective” labels will have no impact on any of those aspects of teacher development.

Of course, administrators, coaches, and master educators will have to be responsible for identifying which teachers are struggling the most in order to properly support those teachers; but, again, being able to do so does not rely on having the four categories.

Taking such a step would require a lot of thinking about logistics. What would be the cutoff between ineffective and effective? Would a teacher be able to stay more than one year if they were considered ineffective? Will teachers still know their numerical score, or will they just find out if they were effective or ineffective?

I believe these questions can be answered using the data gathered over the past two years, and the feedback of administrators, Master Educators, and teachers.

IMPACT reminds me of the unnecessarily elaborate systems that I tried to implement during my first two years of teaching – bizarrely complicated systems and procedures that usually caused more confusion that clarity.

In my attempts to be organized and thorough, I sometimes bit off more than I could chew and caused more confusion for myself and my students than was necessary. In time, I realized that being an effective teacher didn’t mean having unnecessary bells and whistles, and so I went back and simplified.

I believe the intentions behind IMPACT’s features are good, but they are not all necessary and are not working. There is no shame in scaling back IMPACT. In fact, I think it will help make the whole system more effective (no IMPACT pun intended).

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