Charlotte Burton, a teacher at Malcolm X Elementary School in Southeast, usually received a "very good" rating on the section of her performance evaluation that is supposed to measure how well teachers meet their responsibilities outside the classroom, like meeting with parents and getting along with their colleagues.
Then one semester, Burton said, the principal at Malcolm X lowered her rating in that category to "satisfactory." Burton said she still doesn't know why her rating was lowered. The next semester, her rating was back up to "very good"--even though, she says, her work habits didn't change a bit.
The D.C. schools' teacher appraisals, conducted each semester by principals, have long been criticized by teachers as being too subjective. Now a debate within the school system over the evaluations has intensified, as negotiators for the Washington Teachers Union agreed last week to new contract provisions tying teacher pay raises more closely to the evaluations.
The Teachers Union membership must vote by the end of the month to accept or reject the new contract, which would deny them a pay raise of about $700 a year in their sixth year on the job if they do not receive better-than-satisfactory ratings. Currently, the teachers are eligible for the pay raise if they receive a rating of "satisfactory."
Some principals and administrators agree with the teachers that the appraisal system gives principals too much latitude and does little to help improve mediocre teachers and even less to rid the system of incompetent ones.
"I don't like it," said Dennis C. Johnson, principal at Ballou High School in Southeast. "It could be used unfairly against teachers. If I were a teacher, I would have a lot of questions about it. It gives the supervisor too much power."
Johnson added, "Teaching is such an imprecise art, you can't really measure who is outstanding." He and other principals said they anticipate increased bitterness between them and their staffs if the new contract provision is ratified.
Many teachers say they are bitterly opposed to the change, setting the stage for a spirited debate within the union over ratification of the contract.
"It's a lot of bureaucratic nonsense," said Booker Brooks, a social studies teacher at Shaw Junior High School on Rhode Island Avenue NW. "Teachers are professionals like doctors and lawyers, considering the amount of education we have. Most of us have at least master's degrees. So why don't they treat us like professional people?"
School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie said she is "very concerned" about numerous allegations that principals use the evaluations for punitive purposes. She said she wants principals to enroll in courses to learn to use the evaluations effectively and objectively.
McKenzie said she would like to examine the entire process with union officials once the contract is settled.
The appraisal contains three parts. The first requires teachers to list the objectives they intend to accomplish in their class each semester and to give a description of the class: how many students, what are their reading levels.
One teacher at the Friendship Learning Center in far Southeast, for example, wrote on her appraisal form that one of her goals for her ninth grade class this semester is for the students to "research and develop ideas into three-paragraph compositions using guidelines for developing an effective composition."
The problem with this part of the evaluation, says Clemmie H. Strayhorn, principal of Spingarn High School in far Northeast, is that teachers can write a satisfactory semester plan "and then never do a thing."
The second part of the evaluation, though, is supposed to prevent that from happening. It calls for the principals to observe each of their teachers in the classroom at least once a semester to see if they are achieving the goals they set for themselves.
The teachers also are rated at this time on how well they communicate with their students and control their classes; how well they know their subjects; and even how nicely they have decorated their rooms.
Many principals complain that this procedure does not work, since they are only allowed to rate a teacher based on what they see during the observation, and not on what they know of the teacher's performance at any other time.
Carl T. Contee, principal at Hart Junior High School in Anacostia, said word usually gets around in his school before he starts his observations, so teachers know when to expect him. He recalled once visiting the classroom of a teacher he felt had definite problems. Yet that day, Contee said, the teacher was well-prepared.
"I had to give that person 'outstanding' and 'very good' ratings . Even though I knew the person was not that kind of teacher, I had to do it," Contee said.
Principals have more leeway in the final portion of the evaluation, where they rate teachers on whether they arrive at work on time, attend job-related meetings, participate in school committees, cooperate with parents and colleagues and complete their paperwork.
The problem with this portion, says Reginald Moss, principal at Deal Junior High School in upper Northwest, is that it lumps too much into one category. He said he knew of one teacher who was consistently late, yet, "in the classroom, the person was without a doubt an excellent teacher."
Moss said the school system "should tell teachers what they are looking for." He said that is why he hands out a sheet to his teachers each year outlining "99 Things Every Good Teacher Should Do."
The current evaluation procedure began in 1978, during the administration of former superintendent Vincent E. Reed. It was Reed's answer to National Teacher Examinations, the battery of standardized tests that teachers in more than 300 school districts are required to take before they can be hired.
The D.C. schools stopped requiring any teacher entrance exam in the 1960s, when school enrollment was burgeoning and the system desperately needed more teachers.
Reed, now a vice president of The Washington Post, said he has never seen a method of evaluating teachers that was completely objective. He said the procedure he instituted has more direct bearing on performance than others, which he said measured such things as, "Is the room warm? Does the teacher have Johnny put on his boots?"
All area school systems conduct periodic teacher evaluations, but none tie teachers' salary increases as closely to job performance as the District seeks to. Currently, D.C. teachers may file grievances against their evaluations only if they have been rated "unsatisfactory." Under the proposed new contract, the teachers would be able to protest "satisfactory" and "very good" ratings as well if they thought they were too low. Last year, only 15 teachers filed grievances.
The Reed evaluation form received the blessing of the Washington Teachers Union blessing at first, but union officials have become increasingly critical of the system. Union President William H. Simons declined to discuss the teacher appraisal process until the new contract is ratified.