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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 07/18/2011

The real problem with IMPACT teacher evaluation

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This was written by John Thompson, who was a historian and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner-city teacher. He blogs for Alexander Russo’s This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing a book, “Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.”

Note: After this was published, the author of a report that Thompson draws upon in his post objected to his characterization of it. You can read her response here.

By John Thompson

The firings late last week of more than 200 D.C. public school teachers based on the IMPACT evaluation system that was instituted under former chancellor Michelle Rhee should be viewed in light of an Education Sector report released in June called “Inside IMPACT” by senior writer/editor Susan Headden. Because the nonprofit Education Sector has been a supporter of Rhee and her successor, Kaya Henderson, questions raised by the organization about IMPACT have special interest.

Headden spent months talking with teachers, sitting in on classroom observations and subsequent conferences, and she politely concluded that D.C.’s evaluation system has put hundreds of teachers on notice that their careers are in jeopardy, and “left the rest either encouraged and re-energized, or frustrated and scared.”

Headden further explained that teachers describe IMPACT as “humiliating,” “infantilizing,” and “punitive.” When an educator is being “impacted,” “it’s like somebody is always looking over your shoulder.” Headden cited another teacher’s explanation of how IMPACT made her a worse instructor. Headden then observed, “teachers, it seems, are now teaching to their own test.”

Teachers often were too fearful to go on the record with Headden, but she clearly respected one who did. This teacher was most irritated by IMPACT’s “pettiness and inconsistency.” He hated having to narrow the curriculum, just touching every base in order to satisfy IMPACT.

Headden noted a factual inaccuracy and a logical inconsistency in the evaluator’s report on that teacher, as she explained that that was one of the few evaluations that was adjusted afterwards.

Headden also explained the “only modest” correlations between value-added test score growth and the evaluators’ judgments. She summarized Teachers College Professor Aaron Pallas’ devastating attack of D.C. methodology for determining test score growth, and his conclusion that, “the system is rigged to label teachers as ineffective or minimally effective in order to fire them.”

Headden also recounts the destructive effects of cheating that has been encouraged by D.C.’s “culture of accountability.” Teachers who don’t cheat must hit test growth targets that are raised by teachers who do. An honest teacher, following one who gave into the district’s corrupted culture, “is also hurt, because she is starting from an inflated baseline.”

IMPACT’s biggest flaw is its failure to account for poverty and out-of-classroom effects — and in an urban district that is a whopper.

Inside IMPACT” quoted teachers (who were evaluated as “effective”) who complained that the system does not take into account the challenges, for instance, of a class of 22, where five students are non-readers, and eight on special ed IEPs. That helps explain why 22% of teachers in the affluent Ward 3 were rated “highly effective.” In contrast to only 5% in the high-poverty Ward 8 were ranked highly effective.

Headden then noted cryptically that “administrators hear this objection routinely and their response is simple and frankly unsympathetic.”

The failure of an evaluation system in a high-poverty system to control for poverty is the key issue, and it illustrates the best and the worst of “Inside IMPACT .” Headden quotes a Master Evaluator making statements like, “if your lessons are lively, engaging, and challenging, you will not have problems with classroom management,” and “behavior and instruction always dovetail.”

At some point in the interview with Headden, even the evaluator might have realized how silly her statements were because she then explained that evaluators were not required to be “unreasonable.” So, if a student is out of control because he is off his medication, and the evaluator learns that, he is not required to blame the teacher.

Headden’s narrative is so impressive that the Education Sector is now on record supporting Suggestion #4, that IMPACT must take better account of difficult classroom situations.

Her report also contrasted D.C.’s rushed implementation of IMPACT with the deliberate manner in which Cincinnati, Toledo, and Montgomery County, Md., rolled out their state-of-the-art peer review evaluation systems.

And Headden also warned that districts following the D.C. example will “see how difficult it is to calibrate such a powerful tool so that it works in practice as intended.”

The failure of a high-stakes system to take into account the reality of poverty is not just another run-of-the-mill flaw. Headden is extremely diplomatic in getting across the point that systematically discriminating against teachers in high-poverty neighborhood schools is not some minor problem to be put on the district’s “to do list.”

But the report’s polite language is not likely to encourage the district to compromise. She is equally discreet in pointing out that D.C. does not seem interested in addressing the system’s flaws. IMPACT originator, Jason Kamras, says, “I think we have pretty much hit the sweet spot.”

Getting back to last week’s drama, I am in no position to comment on the merits of any specific termination. I strongly support the fair and efficient firing of ineffective teachers. On the other hand, it should be clear that the burden of proof regarding the adequacy of IMPACT rests with the administration, and the “Inside IMPACT” provides more evidence that it is not ready for prime time.

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