New D.C. Teacher Ratings Stress Better Test Scores

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.

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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