As hundreds of D.C. teachers await annual evaluations that could trigger their dismissals this month, attorneys for the District and the local teachers union are battling in court over what parts of the performance appraisal, if any, can be legally challenged.
The case, pending before D.C. Superior Court Judge Anita M. Josey-Herring, is the first skirmish in what is likely to be a protracted legal war waged by the Washington Teachers’ Union to contest the rigorous evaluation system known as IMPACT. A central initiative of former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, it led to the firing of 126 teachers last year and could result in the dismissals of as many as 600 this summer.
Before Rhee’s 2007 appointment, firings for poor performance were exceedingly rare. Rhee resigned in October and was replaced by her deputy, Kaya Henderson.
The District went to court in February to block union efforts to contest firings before an independent arbitrator. Attorneys for the city contend that District law and the labor contract approved last year prohibit arbitration, which the union has used with some success to challenge recent terminations.
Josey-Herring ruled on June 8 that the union could seek arbitration to contest procedural errors in evaluations but not the substance of IMPACT or the ratings instructors receive. She asked attorneys from both sides to collaborate on drafting an order she can sign. The order is due at the end of next week, but union sources say there is a strong likelihood that the union will appeal.
Similar legal disputes are unfolding across the country as cities and states attempt to toughen evaluations by holding teachers more accountable for raising student achievement. Last month, the New York state teachers union sued the Board of Regents — the state’s top education policymaking body — charging that it exceeded its authority by allowing school districts to base 40 percent of teacher evaluations on test scores. An attempt by Los Angeles teachers to block a new evaluation plan was recently rejected by California.
D.C. school officials have hinged much of their effort to improve schools on raising the quality of the city’s 4,200-member teacher corps. Citing research that identifies teachers as the dominant in-school factor driving growth on standardized test scores, they have invested millions of dollars in IMPACT to help remove subpar instructors and improve the performance of others.
Union leaders and many teachers regard the system, in its second year, as arbitrary and punitive. They assert that IMPACT does little to help develop them professionally and makes little allowance for school or classroom conditions that can interfere with instruction and lower evaluation ratings.
Union president Nathan Saunders, who unseated predecessor George Parker last fall largely on the strength of rank-and-file unhappiness with IMPACT, has vowed to force significant changes in the system.
“We will be exerting constant pressure until we have a fair teacher evaluation system,” Saunders said.