D.C.'s teacher evaluations must be fair to students, too

Thursday, January 20, 2011; 8:00 PM

MAYOR Vincent C. Gray says he is worried that the District's teacher evaluation system is unfair because it doesn't account for the challenging social conditions that complicate the education of poor children. He's right to want an equitable process, but any talk of fairness must include the right of every child to have an excellent teacher. Nothing is more unjust than allowing students' economic status, family situation or location to be an excuse for poor teaching.

Mr. Gray has characterized IMPACT, the revolutionary evaluation system put in place by then-Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, as a good start but one with "a long way to go." His comments at a panel on education and poverty were immediately seized upon as sign of discord between him and interim chancellor Kaya Henderson, a top deputy to Ms. Rhee who helped develop IMPACT and whose future in Gray's administration is yet to be determined. A spokeswoman for Mr. Gray played down any suggestion of a rift, telling us his remarks were merely reaffirmation of his view that some fine print might need to be reviewed to ensure that all teachers are evaluated fairly.

That's fine. What would be less fine is any suggestion that different standards need to be in place for different schools. There's no question, as Mr. Gray pointed out, that there are different challenges in teaching poor children with fewer advantages and less support at home. But IMPACT accounts for these challenges by judging teacher effectiveness through measurements of student growth, not via absolute achievement. A teacher, for example, who is able to move a student up one or two grade levels would be judged effective even if that student was still performing below grade level.

Other aspects of IMPACT are based on classroom observations, and it seems us that the principles of effective teaching - being prepared, engaging your students, checking for comprehension - should be the same, no matter whether the classroom is in Ward 3 or Ward 7. It is troubling, if not particularly surprising, that there are more highly effective teachers in affluent neighborhoods than there are in struggling communities. Last year, 5 percent of teachers in Ward 8 were judged highly effective (and thus received more money); in Ward 3, some 33 percent were. Clearly more must be done to support and improve teaching in high-poverty areas, but the solution can't be to alter the standards in the places most in need of good teachers.

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