April 6, 2012

The Highly Effective Teacher Incentive Act, passed by the D.C. Council last month , acknowledges the urgent need for more effective educators in our lowest-performing schools. As D.C. teachers and teaching policy fellows with Teach Plus , a national teacher-leadership organization, we are encouraged by the D.C. Council’s recognition that great teachers can be powerful levers of change.

Of 663 D.C. teachers rated “highly effective” on the most recent round of the IMPACT evaluations, just 71 work in the 41 schools in Wards 7 and 8, compared with 135 in the 10 schools in Ward 3. As it is currently written, this legislation aims to address that disparity by offering skilled teachers higher pay and other benefits for transferring to a low-performing school.

The plan’s success, however, rests on how it is rolled out. In order for this legislation to empower educators to dramatically improve student outcomes, careful attention must be paid to the selection of teachers and schools.

The right teachers: The screening process must identify teachers who possess the particular strengths and necessary resolve to address the challenges they will experience at a low-performing school. Teacher effectiveness is not always transferable from one school environment to another. In a high-needs school, students are often grade levels behind, requiring intensive instruction to produce more than a year’s worth of academic growth. Enabling each student to make that kind of growth can be especially challenging when the instructional culture and systems of the school are not supportive — something that is too often the case in schools that are consistently low-performing. Being effective in these schools also requires specific skills in building relationships with students and their families.

We also feel strongly that, as part of the screening process, candidates should interview directly with school leadership and spend time getting to know the school. This will enable both candidates and leaders to identify successful matches between teachers and schools.

The right schools: Selecting the best schools for this pilot program is also critical. As any teacher can attest, the culture of a school — in large part determined by the leadership — has huge implications for the learning that happens there. School leaders must be invested in effecting significant change. The leadership should be supportive and enthusiastic about welcoming new teachers and leveraging their skills to improve student learning schoolwide.

Likewise, it is vital that the existing teachers at selected schools are engaged in the initiative. Teachers who have been successful at working with students in the pilot schools can play a pivotal role in acculturating and transitioning selected teachers. Without ample opportunity for incoming and current teachers to collaborate on strategies to spur academic improvement, the success of the initiative will be compromised.

Once adequately funded, the Highly Effective Teacher Incentive Act has the potential to catalyze much-needed change in the city’s lowest performing schools. But reaching its potential requires smart implementation — and the voices of teachers like us, who believe all children can achieve if they have access to effective educators and schools.

The writers are Teach Plus fellows. Meaghan Petersack teaches fourth grade in a Ward 4 charter school and Jignasha Pandya teaches physics in a Ward 5 D.C. public high school.