'Highly effective' teachers are spread unevenly across District

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 6:46 PM

The District's most affluent ward has more than four times as many "highly effective" public schoolteachers as its poorest, underscoring a problem endemic to urban school systems: Their best educators often do not serve the children who need them most.

The inequity is reflected in the distribution of teachers judged to be most effective under the school district's rigorous new evaluation system, known as IMPACT. Just 5 percent of the 636 top performers work in Southeast Washington's Ward 8, home to many of the city's lowest-achieving schools and its highest concentration of children living in poverty.

In contrast, 22 percent of the top-performing teachers are in affluent Ward 3 in Northwest Washington, home to some of the most successful and sought-after public schools. The area has eight fewer schools than Ward 8 and about 60 percent of Ward 8's enrollment.

The imbalance represents a significant challenge for Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D) and interim Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who have pledged to continue the reform measures initiated by former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Research frequently cited by Rhee and her supporters suggests that low-achieving children who have three highly effective teachers in successive years can make dramatic academic gains.

Officials caution that many children in Ward 8 and other parts of the city attend school outside their neighborhoods, but they also acknowledge the need to address the maldistribution of teaching talent. Among the measures they have introduced are performance bonuses that are doubled for educators who excel in high-poverty schools.

Henderson was not available for comment. In a statement, spokeswoman Safiya Simmons said: "Although we've made great progress - there are highly effective educators in every ward - we acknowledge that there's still much to do."

The imbalance is the product of longtime personnel practices in the District and other big public school systems, where traditional lock-step salary schedules provide no financial incentive for teachers to accept jobs in low-performing schools. Seniority rules often allow seasoned educators to transfer to less-challenging posts, leaving behind a higher proportion of younger, greener instructors.

"Good teachers have always transferred over time to easier schools, because there are so few other ways to reward yourself,"said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that promotes wider educational opportunities for minority and low-income students.

Veteran teachers say spots at schools with high rates of poverty and discipline issues have sometimes been used as punishment, while assignment to a more successful school might be doled out as a reward.

Elizabeth Davis, who has spent most of her 35-year career in Ward 7 and 8 schools, recalled the offer she received from an administrator after winning a teaching award from the MetLife Foundation in May 2007.

"He said, 'Because you're a good teacher, you should be in a better school,' " Davis said.

Others say the scarcity of top teachers reflects a broader inequity in the distribution of resources in the school system.

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