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D.C. mayor offers most explicit criticism of IMPACT teacher evaluation system

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 2011; 10:25 PM

Mayor Vincent C. Gray says that the IMPACT teacher evaluation system, regarded as former schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's signature reform, has "a long way to go" before it is fair because it disadvantages instructors in schools with large numbers of students challenged by the effects of poverty and other social conditions.

"It's a step in the right direction, but it's got a long way to go to be a fair evaluation," Gray (D) said Saturday during a panel discussion on education and poverty at Adas Israel synagogue in Northwest Washington.

Gray's criticism of IMPACT, his most explicit since entering office, echoes that of the Washington Teachers' Union, a major financial supporter of his candidacy. It appears to clash with a core tenet of Rhee and her successor, Interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson: that excellent teachers can help children thrive academically, regardless of the students' economic or social backgrounds.

It also is the first public sign that Gray and Henderson - who is his choice for the interim post and is regarded as front-runner for permanent appointment - differ on how education reform should go forward.

To illustrate his point, Gray cited two schools at opposite ends of the District's public education spectrum.

At Horace Mann Elementary in Northwest, 80 percent of the 269 students are white, 90 percent read at proficiency level or better, and none is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch - a common barometer of household poverty.

At Stanton Elementary in Southeast, where 100 percent of the students are black, 13 percent read proficiently. More than 90 percent are eligible for federally subsidized lunches. This year, the school was placed under the control of Scholar Academies, a Philadelphia charter school operator.

"It's not the same to teach in Horace Mann as to teach in Stanton Elementary," Gray said. "That's a very different challenge. And frankly, I'm not convinced that we have figured out yet how, with an evaluation system that covers all teachers across the city, that you account for the social challenges that inevitably are to be addressed."

Gray said that he has raised the fairness issue with Henderson and that she expressed a willingness to meet his concerns. Henderson expressed confidence Tuesday that she and Gray could reach common ground.

"The mayor and I share a common outcome at the end of the road, which is a great teacher in every classroom," she said. "He and I have a track record of working together on vexing problems."

The union plans to push Gray and Henderson for substantial changes in IMPACT and is working on an alternative evaluation system that it plans to propose.

"IMPACT is tremendously flawed," said Nathan Saunders, president of the union. "The question is, is the District attempting to maintain IMPACT as a legacy to Michelle Rhee, or does it have a commitment to a fair evaluation tool?"

Rhee drew national attention when she launched IMPACT in 2009. It replaced an evaluation tool that she said gave more than 90 percent of the District's teachers ratings of "meet" or "exceeds" expectations. Such assessments, she said, were not justifiable, given the school system's historically dismal academic record. Under IMPACT, more than 120 teachers were dismissed for poor performance last summer, an unprecedented number for the District.

IMPACT takes some student challenges into account when assessing a small segment of the teaching force. Half of the evaluation for reading and math teachers in grades 4 through 8 is based on growth in the standardized test scores of individual students. A model is developed for each student, predicting how he or she should do on the next round of tests. The model includes prior test scores, special education and English language status, and eligibility for subsidized lunch. The District does not use race or ethnicity as a predictive factor.

But 80 percent of the annual evaluation for most other regular classroom teachers makes no allowance for student challenges. Teachers receive five classroom observations in a school year - three from an administrator, and two from an outside "master educator" - assessing their fidelity to an elaborate set of guidelines called the Teaching and Learning Framework. It covers virtually every aspect of a teacher's classroom performance, including delivery of course material and checking for student understanding.

In the classroom of a highly effective teacher, according to the framework, the flow of the lesson "is never impeded by inappropriate or off-task student behavior, either because no such behavior occurs or because when such behavior occurs, the teacher efficiently addresses it."

Henderson said the framework is a tool to measure pedagogical expertise, "something all our teachers should have, regardless of the student population with which they work," she said.

D.C. Council member Sekou Biddle (D-At Large), a former schoolteacher, said that teachers in high-poverty areas need more and different resources to do their jobs, but he agreed with Henderson that teaching standards shouldn't vary.

"If we allow people to say that a community is more challenging because the kids are poor, so they should be allowed to perform less well, then we are really missing the key thing here," Biddle said.

Staff writer Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

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