The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. Public Schools, closely watched for its reform efforts, is overhauling teacher evaluation and training

In this file photo from 2011, Master teacher Eric Bethel passes time between teacher observations at Eaton Elementary School in the District's Cleveland Park neighborhood. D.C. Public Schools is remaking its teacher evaluation program. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

D.C. Public Schools officials have announced sweeping changes to the school system’s teacher training and evaluation systems that could profoundly affect how the system judges its teachers and how it seeks to help them improve.

Many in education — from the nation’s teachers to school district officials to federal policymakers — see current teacher training practices as a huge waste of time and money.

Now D.C. Public Schools, whose experiments in education reform during the past decade have been closely watched and sometimes imitated, is endeavoring to change that, jettisoning workshops that often are divorced from teachers’ daily work. Instead, teachers will meet weekly with small groups of colleagues who teach the same subject and they will work with a coach who is an expert in that subject and can help tweak lesson plans and address the nitty-gritty questions that teachers face in their classrooms.

The school system also is planning to overhaul its controversial teacher evaluation system. No longer will independent evaluators conduct classroom observations; that job will fall to school principals. And while D.C. was one of the first school systems in the nation to judge teachers in part by their students’ test scores, it will become one of a growing number to incorporate student surveys in its teacher evaluations.

Education researchers caution against using test scores to evaluate teachers

The changes, scheduled to take effect in the fall, are notable not only for D.C. teachers, but for teachers and education observers across the country: D.C. Public Schools’ efforts to shape its classroom workforce during the past decade have drawn national attention, setting an agenda for reform that other districts and states have followed.

“The movement that we’re seeing in D.C. has implications for the entire nation,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group that endorses the city’s approach.

“Most districts think that the way you prepare for Common Core standards is to teach about instructional shifts in some kind of generic pedagogical way that really doesn’t mean a lot to teachers,” Walsh said. “If you develop a system where you’re learning how to make those shifts in the context of learning about ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ that becomes meaningful to teachers — and actionable.”

Because few details of the plan have been released, it is unclear what kind of direct impact the changes will have for classroom teachers in the immediate future. The head of the city’s teacher union, Elizabeth Davis, said that teachers are unsettled and exhausted after adjusting to a series of changes and new initiatives in recent years.

“It’s like building the plane while flying it,” Davis said.

Study: Billions of dollars in annual teacher training largely a waste

D.C. Public Schools has made progress in recent years, posting faster growth than any other big city on a key national test in 2015. But the system’s academic achievement continues to trail the nation.

In 2015, about one-quarter of the city's students in grades three through eight were on track to be prepared for college, according to scores on new tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards. And that city average masks staggering gaps between white and black students, and between affluent and poor.

D.C. Public Schools officials say that if they are going to help students make more rapid academic gains, they need a new approach to helping teachers get better at their jobs.

“I know sometimes professional development isn’t all that sexy, but it’s really sexy to us,” said Jason Kamras, the school system’s chief of instructional practice. “We believe we have the best teachers in America, but we also believe that we need to do more to help them meet the demands of the curriculum.”

Many teachers have criticized the city’s evaluation system, in use since 2009, as a punitive exercise to be endured rather than a tool to help them improve. Teachers who score low can be fired, and hundreds have lost their jobs for poor performance.

David Tansey, a math teacher at Dunbar High, said he appreciates the intent of the changes. “We can hopefully move beyond the narrative that the teacher is the problem, and we can start developing a system that allows us to listen to teachers to identify what their struggles are,” he said.

But there are many unanswered questions that make it difficult to know whether the new efforts will be truly helpful and fair to teachers, he said. “Are we asking teachers what they need and then providing it, or are we assuming from afar that we understand what the gaps are?” he said.

Tansey said he hopes coaches will not only be helping teachers gain skills, but also will learn about (and help school system leaders understand) some of the structural challenges over which teachers have little control — such as high numbers of students whose gaps in knowledge make it difficult to teach grade-level material.

The school system has announced only the broad strokes of the new teacher-training model, called LEAP, and revisions to the evaluation system, called IMPACT.

At the elementary level, most teachers will be paired with a math or literacy coach and a small group of teachers that teach the same subject. Secondary teachers will be divided into departments — math, English, social studies and science — and paired with a coach who has subject expertise.

The groups will meet weekly to hash out lesson plans and wrestle with fine-grained questions about how to best teach the specific concepts they are teaching at the moment. Coaches will observe each teacher weekly, and then meet afterward to offer feedback.

Those observations won’t be part of the city’s teacher evaluations and are solely meant to help teachers improve, officials said.

Carolyne Albert-Garvey, principal of Maury Elementary, said she is excited about the potential.

“Now that instructional practices have improved, we need to help teachers get that deep content of how to teach reading and writing and fractions,” she said, noting that the expectations for teachers and students have changed in the age of Common Core. “The math is really hard, and frankly learning how to teach reading is not easy. How do you teach a kid reading comprehension? It’s big work.”

The new approach is cost-neutral, according to officials, because the system is planning to get rid of one of the most distinctive — and expensive — parts of its current teacher evaluation system.

D.C. Public Schools was one of the first school systems that hired independent evaluators to observe teachers in classrooms, instead of relying solely on principals. Those evaluators, known as master educators, were meant to offer an outsiders’ dispassionate view of the teachers’ work, uncolored by favoritism or personality clashes.

But now, seven years after introducing master educators, the system is planning to jettison them. The $5 million in savings will be redirected into the new teacher-training effort, and some of the system’s 40 master educators likely will be hired to work as math or literacy coaches.

It was the teachers' union that pushed for independent evaluators when IMPACT was first designed, according to news reports at the time. Research funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — with which unions often disagree — found that such outside observers results in significantly more reliable teacher ratings.

Several teachers said Tuesday that they feel as if master educators bring important objectivity to the evaluation process.

Davis, president of the Washington Teachers Union, said teachers are also concerned about incorporating student surveys. And she questioned whether the training would eat into teachers’ scarce planning time, saying it’s a top-down effort that will “make teachers spend all their time preparing for these meetings and producing work for other adults instead of preparing for their students.”

There are a number of other changes to IMPACT in the works for next year, but many details won’t be made public until the spring. It’s not yet clear, for example, how much student surveys will count toward a teacher’s overall evaluation, nor at what grade levels student feedback will be incorporated.

The school system also is in the midst of revising the rubric, or checklist, that principals use to evaluate a teacher in the classroom, a document that describes what the system considers to be good teaching. Teachers who score poorly on evaluations can be fired.

Officials also announced that the school system would return to using test scores as part of teachers’ evaluations next school year, ending a hiatus meant to ease the transition to new Common Core-aligned tests in 2015 and 2016.

And there will be periods during the school year when no formal classroom observations will be conducted. It’s a change meant to allow for “instructional risk-taking,” Kamras said.

It’s also an acknowledgment that for at least some teachers, the stress associated with IMPACT observations has stifled their ability to be creative and take chances.

“I do appreciate that, but shouldn’t the rubric be done in such a way that you can be innovative any time, and that’s a good thing, not something I have to relegate to a few weeks out of every year?” said high school social studies teacher Laura Fuchs.

Fuchs said these new initiatives are the latest in a long line, rolled out quickly and without first talking with a broad range of teachers to find out what they need to help them do their jobs better. “No one ever asks us what we need to do better. They just tell us,” she said.

DCPS officials said that a task force including teachers and principals helped shape their plans. They said they understand that after years of massive changes in the school system, many teachers might feel fatigued by yet more change. But they also believe, a spokeswoman said, that “this is one more way that teachers at DCPS get to be true masters of their craft and hone in on instructional practices.”