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D.C. schools' evaluation rules, IMPACT, can't measure all the good teachers do

By Courtland Milloy
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 10:30 PM

Using the D.C. public schools' new teacher evaluation guidelines, called IMPACT, I've been doing a little reviewing of my own. When it comes to those old-school teachers I've met through the years, could this new system have accurately gauged the artistry that they used to turn many a student's life around?

Take Anne Jackson, a teacher I'd followed since 1989. With the city in the throes of a drug and homicide epidemic, she promised her sixth-graders at Anne Beers Elementary School in Southeast that she would be there for them until they graduated from high school.

So she started a weekend tutoring program at her church and stayed in touch. Sure enough, in 1995, all 28 graduated from D.C. high schools; 16 were headed for college with more than $2 million in scholarships and the others either had jobs lined up or reported that they were feeling good about their future prospects.

However, student performance in Jackson's classes was often affected by circumstances beyond her control. For the most part, her students scored well on standardized tests. But there were years when she could not protect her kids from the ravages of poverty and violence ,no matter how hard she tried.

No matter how great a teacher may be, there's no way you can educate a child who is not in class. Pretty hard to get a girl to perform well on a test if she's keeping some painful secret about being pregnant or abused. And sometimes boys are kicked out of school for disruptive behavior before anybody discovers that a friend or family member had been shot to death.

Jackson had a way of getting through. But it could take time, a year just trying to keep a student from dropping out, more time to get back on track.

Wait a minute. No excuses, right?

In today's school system, test scores are the vital "IMPACT components for Individual Value-Added Student Achievement Data (IVA)," according to the D.C. schools Web site, and they account for 50 percent of a teacher's IMPACT score.

Then there's the Master Educator's 30-minute classroom observation diagnostic, based on dimensions of student-teacher compatibility that, to me, sound like something used by online dating services.

For instance, a teacher can lose IMPACT points, for showing "little or no evidence of 'positive' rapport' " with a student within the "Teaching and Learning Framework (TLF)," which accounts for 35 percent of the IMPACT score.

Of course, "negative rapport" and, say, the "tough love," that Jackson's students returned to thank her for years after they had graduated, are not the same. But can any ME using the IMPACT TLF really tell the difference?

To the teachers like Jackson who are still hanging in there, I'd sure hate to see you go.

Once again, the District is facing tough times. Tuesday we learned that 43 percent of black children in the District live in poverty, a 7 percent increase over 2008, according to the census. Foreclosures on homes where D.C. schoolchildren reside are rising sharply, according to a recent study by the Urban Institute. The city lost 12,000 affordable homes and apartments last year, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. D.C. public school test scores for 2009-10 show that progress stalled and in some cases was reversed - just as the recession was sending poverty and unemployment through the roof.

On the front lines in and out of school are the teachers. Little wonder that many D.C. public school students were so upset over teacher firings that they staged a protest march last year to school headquarters. An attack on their teachers was an attack on them.

The extent to which teachers serve as surrogate parents for students has never been fully appreciated. And part of the reason is that teachers don't boast about it; some of them will never list such work on a "pay for performance" eligibility form.

Sandra Howell came out of that tradition. I met her in 2000 when she retired from the Takoma Educational Center in Northwest.

"She sacrifices for her students and invests so much of her time in us," said Jarrick Anderson, who was in Howell's seventh-grade class.

Poverty and family dysfunction were wreaking so much havoc on students' mental health that Howell sometimes allowed them to use her home as a safe haven.

"She takes students to church every Sunday and to all of her family reunions," Jarrick told me. "Once, she stayed up all night to help me finish a science fair project."

Now, let's see how that registers on the D.C. IMPACT teach-o-meter, which uses a "sophisticated statistical model to isolate the impact that you have on your students' learning."

Well wouldn't you know it? Data points could not be established for measuring lives saved, second chances given and hopes restored.

milloyc@washpost.com

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