Evaluating D.C. teachers a confusing job

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 2, 2009

In the last half of the 19th century, many inventors pursued the dream of building an airplane. Duds and crashes were frequent and skeptics numerous. Only a decade before the Wright brothers' 1903 flight, British physicist and engineer Lord Kelvin had declared that "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible."

American educators are similarly scrambling to create a teacher evaluation system that will raise the level of instruction and student achievement in the same reliable way modern jetliners take us home for Thanksgiving. They have not been very successful. Many smart teachers have concluded that the idea is a loser. They are artists, they say, whose work cannot be reduced to numbers for placement, pay and promotion.

Still, many people are trying to be teacher assessments' answer to Wilbur and Orville Wright. Take, for instance, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and a team of educators led by Jason Kamras, the 2005 national teacher of the year. You can find their IMPACT plan, the result of input from more than 500 D.C. educators, by clicking on the "Teaching and Learning" tab at http://dcps.dc.gov.

Will it crash and burn? Many think so. George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said "it takes the art of teaching and turns it into bean counting."

I have been sending the plan to experts across the country, and they are more optimistic than I expected.

The program is already underway. Fifty percent of each teacher's rating will be based on how much their students improve over last year on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System test when compared with the average gain of a similar mix of students districtwide. Forty percent will be based on five 30-minute classroom observations by their administrators and district evaluators chosen for their teaching experience, each followed by a discussion with the teacher about what looked good and what didn't. Assessment of a teacher's support for colleagues and the school, and the school's overall tests gains, round out the rating.

It is complicated as heck. At the moment, only English and math teachers in grades 4 through 8 will have useful test results, so all other teachers will be rated more heavily on their classroom evaluations. Teachers can receive between 100 and 400 points. Those who score below 175 will be "subject to dismissal," although Rhee and Kamras say principals have the final say and can save a teacher who just had a bad year.

Kristen Amundson, a former teacher and school board member and currently a state legislator in Virginia, remembers an evaluation experience that explains why so many educators shrink from the idea. Her evaluator had miraculously arrived when her English class was cooking. "You know, I've felt like that myself," said one 16-year-old boy of the poem they were reading. The evaluator's take? "You didn't call the roll," he said.

What saves IMPACT, Amundson said, "is that it's clear for both teachers and evaluators. . . . There is no way a teacher can say, 'I don't understand how they expect me to plan lessons.' It's all there: setting ambitious and measurable goals, aligning each lesson with content standards, communicating goals to students." Allan Odden, a University of Wisconsin educational leadership expert, said IMPACT was "sophisticated, well thought through and, if executed well, will represent one of the most rigorous systems in the country."

Uh-oh. He used the E-word -- "executed." Many promising assessment plans have turned into blotches on the runway when not flown properly, often because they were too complex or too vulnerable to character flaws. I hear that one D.C. principal told teachers that if they scored below 175, he couldn't save their jobs -- a cowardly statement contrary to what Rhee and Kamras are saying.

But if it works, it could be a big deal and influence assessment even in the Washington suburbs, the subject of next week's column. Out there, rating teachers is being done very gingerly, and often with no public reporting.

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