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'Highly effective' teachers are spread unevenly across District

"We are catering to folks who don't live this side of the river," said Absalom Jordan, chairman of the Ward 8 Education Council. "We still have an education system in the District of Columbia that is separate and unequal."

The 636 teachers, who represent about 15 percent of the city's teacher corps, won their highly effective designations during the 2009-10 school year under IMPACT, which was introduced by Rhee.

Teachers are assessed through five classroom observations and detailed criteria that include ability to explain content clearly, to respond effectively to student misunderstandings and to provide multiple ways to learn course material. For math and reading teachers in grades 4 through 8, 50 percent of the evaluation is based on student growth on the DC-CAS standardized tests.

The collective bargaining agreement approved by teachers last summer provides for performance bonuses for teachers who achieve highly effective status. The highest annual bonuses - as much as $25,000 - are available for highly effective teachers in schools where 60 percent or more of the children are from families that meet federal income guidelines for free or reduced-price lunch. All 21 schools in Ward 8 fall into that category, commonly used by schools as a measure of household poverty.

"All the big financial incentives go the teachers in the low-income schools," said Jason Kamras, the D.C. schools official who is the principal architect of IMPACT. "We're placing a clear priority on serving our children in low-income schools."

It is hoped that other provisions in the new contract will make a difference, Kamras said, including one that gives principals more discretion over hiring from the annual pool of teachers who lost jobs because of enrollment declines or program changes.

But the bonus system has attracted criticism from some teachers because the contract requires that they waive certain job protections in exchange for the money. It is not known how many have declined the payments.

And critics say IMPACT disadvantages teachers in schools where challenging conditions make learning difficult. They say that the system does not assess the value or effectiveness of teachers who must contend with large numbers of children from broken or dysfunctional homes and dangerous neighborhoods.

"I think the teachers in a lot of instances are doing a lot more than teaching," said D.C. Council member Yvette Alexander of Ward 7, where just 51 teachers designated highly effective are assigned. "They are counselors and social workers. And until you can address all of these issues, I don't think it's fair to evaluate them as effective or ineffective based on student outcomes."

Kamras said that predicted rates of test-score growth in classes where teachers are judged for their "value added" are adjusted for factors such as special education and free lunch.

But teachers said the evaluation system will probably never account for the intangible ways in which they support their students. Bill Rope, a teacher at Hearst Elementary in Ward 3, recalled a colleague at another school who spent his own money and held fundraisers to take his sixth-graders on an annual post-"graduation" trip to Canada so they could experience another country.

"Of course, he couldn't get any credit under IMPACT for that," Rope said.

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