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D.C. Launches Rigorous Teacher Evaluation System

After an initial observation, all teachers will receive a "growth plan" outlining strengths and weaknesses and plans for assistance, if needed. Rhee said the District is committed to "targeted professional development" to help struggling teachers improve.

By June, their performance will be converted to a 100-to-400 point scale. Those falling below 175 will be subject to dismissal.

To allay teacher concerns that assessments will be tainted by personality clashes with principals, IMPACT will employ a corps of third-party "master educators" to conduct two of the classroom observations. The District's old system, like those in most other cities, required fewer classroom visits and left them largely to school administrators, who often had neither the time nor the expertise in subject matter to render fair evaluations, educators say. The master educators, who do not report to the principals, have backgrounds in the teachers' subjects.

"I think it's light years ahead of what's available in most school districts in the United States," said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, which advocates for improvements in teacher recruiting and development.

IMPACT documents suggest that no nuance will be left unexamined in the 30-minute classroom visits. Observers are expected to check every five minutes for the fraction of students paying attention. Teachers are supposed to show that they can tailor instruction to at least three "learning styles" (auditory, visual or tactile, for example). They can lower their scores by "using sarcasm that visibly hurts or decreases the comfort of one or more students." Among the ways instructors can demonstrate that they are instilling student belief in success is through "affirmation chants, poems and cheers."

"It's meant to honor the complexity of teaching," said Kerri Larkin, a former Anacostia High teacher and one of the master educators.

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, WTU's parent organization, said IMPACT is flawed because its complexity is rooted in the belief that the teacher is solely responsible for student progress.

"DCPS has an ideology that everything is dependent on individual teachers and it doesn't matter whether they've gotten help they need," Weingarten said.

Other teaching experts said IMPACT might be top-heavy with well-intentioned criteria, forcing teachers to jump through pedagogical hoops rather than focus on their students.

"What I would worry about is trying to quantify it in too fine a way," said Jon Saphier, author of "The Skillful Teacher" a popular educator text, who was consulted by Kamras on the framework and likes it overall.

Even experts who support a value-added approach warn of pitfalls. One is that the smaller the student sample, the more statistically unreliable the result. Kamras said classrooms with fewer than 10 students will not be subject to growth monitoring.

Classroom observations have started, and officials said the feedback from teachers has been positive. But instructor interviews yield a more mixed picture. Some fear that master educators have been given marching orders to be tougher on veteran teachers.

"I foresee a lot of teachers, even decent ones, getting low evaluations through this system," definitely at first, said a teacher at West Elementary in Northwest Washington, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals by administrators.

Willie Brewer, a music teacher at Marshall Elementary in Northeast, is concerned that poor student behavior will lower their scores.

"If a child acts up in class, your evaluation goes down," he said,

Kamras said the system takes that into account by running five observations. "One off day will never be determinative," he said.

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