Evaluating teachers is a delicate conversation

Eric Bethel, left, holds a conference with Chris Bergfalk, a science teacher at Eaton Elementary School.
Eric Bethel, left, holds a conference with Chris Bergfalk, a science teacher at Eaton Elementary School. (Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 18, 2011; 1:58 PM

They met on an icy afternoon, Clay Harris, an elementary math teacher at the end of a hectic day, and Eric Bethel, one of the city's new master educators, there to render a verdict on Harris's teaching that could determine whether he kept his job.

In polite, awkward silence, they walked to Harris's empty classroom at Beers Elementary School in Southeast Washington and settled in kid-size chairs at a low, yellow table.

Bethel set up his laptop. Harris took out a piece of paper for notes and began tapping his pencil on it.

"I didn't do everything perfectly," he said almost apologetically.

Bethel smiled. "No one does," he said.

This conference, one of hundreds underway across the District, offers a rare glimpse into the hypersensitive center of an education reform movement that has taken aim squarely at teachers.

The idea, aggressively embraced by the Obama administration, is as straightforward as it is controversial: that teachers are the main factor in student growth - more than poverty, parents, curriculum, principals or other circumstance. Improve the quality of instruction, the logic goes, and you will improve the public schools, a conviction that has led districts to adopt more-rigorous ways of evaluating teachers.

The District's system-called IMPACT, now in its second year-is becoming a national model, even as unions and some experts question the wisdom of staking careers on it. Last year, then-Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee fired 75 teachers who received poor evaluations. Firing a teacher was a rarity under the old system, which tended to rate teachers highly even as the city's schools accrued one of the nation's worst academic records.

Under the new system, the annual rating for teachers in certain grades depends heavily on how much their students' test scores improve, a metric that many experts consider unreliable.

But the heart of the new system is a set of nine standards - from explaining content clearly to time management - that are supposed to represent years of research on the elements of great instruction. During five, half-hour classroom observations throughout the year, most unannounced, principals or master educators assess how well teachers incorporate the standards into their teaching

After each observation, there is a conference. It's the moment when the reform agenda meets the teachers expected to carry it out, when teachers so often praised in emotional or even artistic terms - for effort, devotion, creativity-confront a new, more technical set of measures.

"There is this 'bless your heart' problem in the teaching profession," said Jason Kamras, the key architect of IMPACT. "It's, 'This is so hard, so bless your heart for trying.' That's not how you become a real profession. We need to be honest about that conversation."

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