D.C. Launches Rigorous Teacher Evaluation System

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has launched a rigorous evaluation system that will make some District teachers among the first in the nation to have their job security tied to standardized test scores.

The effort to hold teachers accountable for student progress, which began last week, is a cornerstone of Rhee's agenda and a goal for education reformers nationwide. They contend that the best way to improve schools is to continuously monitor and improve teacher performance. The "value added" -- what instructors contribute to student growth on tests -- is a more meaningful indicator of progress than the absolute numerical targets in the federal No Child Left Behind law, advocates say.

"Academic progress must be measured by growth," Rhee said. "By using value-added analysis we will finally be able to consistently reward and recognize the significant contributions of every adult in a school building."

Rhee is investing $4 million in the system, called IMPACT, which will also assess teachers against an elaborate new framework of requirements and guidelines that cover a range of factors, including classroom presence and how carefully they check for student understanding of the material.

But IMPACT is likely to be another flash point in Rhee's turbulent relationship with local and national teachers union leaders. They say that growth statistics are too unreliable to include in performance evaluations and that the new assessment system -- which the District can legally impose without union consent -- is an instrument to identify and remove struggling teachers, not a means to help them improve.

"It's very punitive," said George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers' Union. "It takes the art of teaching and turns it into bean counting."

Many school districts, including Houston, Denver and Montgomery County, collect growth data for awarding teacher bonuses or as a diagnostic tool to determine how an educator needs to improve. Incorporating it into job evaluations breaks new ground, according to D.C. officials.

The goal is to revamp a process in which the vast majority of teachers are traditionally stamped with "satisfactory" or "meets expectations" ratings -- if they are evaluated at all -- either because of administrative incompetence or an interest in keeping the peace with politically powerful unions, reform advocates say.

"Performance assessments in most urban systems are shameful," said Jason Kamras, Rhee's "human capital" deputy, who led the effort to revamp the District's system. "We treat teachers as if they were interchangeable parts, and they're not."

IMPACT, which school officials say was developed in close consultation with rank-and-file District teachers, is the purest expression yet of the data-driven culture that Rhee and her generation of education leaders are trying to establish in public schools. Even custodians will have 5 percent of their evaluation based on schoolwide test score growth.

This year only reading and math teachers in grades 4 through 8 -- fewer than 20 percent of the District's 3,800 classroom instructors -- will be evaluated on the basis of growth on the annual District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System, or DC-CAS. Student value-added will account for half of their evaluation.

Most of the other half -- and the bulk of the evaluations for teachers in non-testing grades -- will be based on an elaborate new "teaching and learning framework" introduced at the beginning of the school year. Over the course of five classroom observations, teachers will be scored in 22 areas across nine categories. The criteria include clarity in defining a lesson's objective and instilling in students a belief that hard work leads to success.

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