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D.C. teacher evaluation system has academic benefits, but is racially biased, new study finds

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee visits Ketcham Elementary School in Southeast Washington on Feb. 5. In 2018, Ferebee vowed to examine the teacher evaluation system he inherited.
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee visits Ketcham Elementary School in Southeast Washington on Feb. 5. In 2018, Ferebee vowed to examine the teacher evaluation system he inherited. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

The District’s teacher evaluation system is not pushing effective teachers out of the classroom in significant numbers, according to a city-commissioned study released Friday. But the study found that the evaluation system, known as IMPACT, is racially biased, with White teachers on average receiving higher scores on their evaluations than their Black and Hispanic colleagues.

Dozens of teachers and principals interviewed for the study — which was conducted by the American University School of Education — said that IMPACT could be an effective tool at getting rid of bad teachers, but many said it also created a culture of fear and fell short of achieving its second goal of supporting teacher growth.

“This may lead to the question about whether it is possible to have one system that effectively accomplishes two of the stated mechanisms of IMPACT: to transition out low performing teachers and support teacher growth,” the study reads.

The school system also released its own analyses of IMPACT data.

The evaluation system — one of the first in the nation to tie teacher job security and paychecks to class performance — has been central to the District’s high-profile education efforts over the past decade. It’s one of the more discussed legacies of Michelle Rhee, who gained national recognition as the District’s public schools chancellor from 2007 to 2010.

In 2009, Rhee enacted the evaluation system unilaterally, without engaging the teachers union in negotiations. The implementation of IMPACT led to the firing of hundreds of teachers and heightened tensions between the school system and the union that persist today. The Washington Teachers’ Union has said the evaluation system creates a culture of fear and can be easily weaponized by principals to get rid of teachers they dislike. The union has unsuccessfully attempted to make IMPACT part of the bargaining process.

When Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee arrived in 2018, he vowed to examine the evaluation system he inherited. This latest study is the result of that pledge.

Ferebee has attributed some of the teaching improvements in the school system to IMPACT, and said he does not plan to eliminate it.

A 2017 study found that students who had low-performing teachers who were fired made big gains the next year with a different teacher.

But Ferebee said in an interview ahead of Friday’s study release that the analysis shows that IMPACT can be better constructed and implemented. The study examined the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years.

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“This system has worked for us, but we know it has imperfections,” Ferebee said. “There are elements of systemic racism embedded in all systems and organizations. Having greater clarity of where those lines of disparities are allows us to be more responsive than we have in the past.”

Overall, 85.3 percent of D.C. Public Schools teachers were retained in 2019, up from 77.8 percent in 2010, according to the study. The school system says that 96 percent of teachers assessed as “highly effective” are retained. At the end of the 2017-2018 academic year, 84 percent of teachers were ranked “effective” or “highly effective.”

One percent of teachers were ranked “ineffective” — and of those, 96 percent were fired. Three percent were ranked “minimally effective,” with 36 percent of them being fired and 16 percent leaving on their own.

The study portrayed a complicated picture of how teachers are assessed and why teachers may be leaving the school system.

In the 2018-2019 academic year, Black teachers — who account for 54 percent of the teacher workforce — on average received an IMPACT score that was 17 points lower than their White colleagues. (IMPACT is based on a 400-point scale). Hispanic teachers scored 9 points lower than White teachers.

The study found that these disparate scores can be partially attributed to the fact that Black teachers are more likely to work at schools that serve high concentrations of low-income students. Teachers who work at these campuses — designated as Title I schools — tend to receive slightly lower scores on the portion of the IMPACT rubric that assesses how teachers create a classroom environment that is well-planned, challenges students and enables them to take ownership of the content. Teachers at these schools, on average, receive higher bonuses because the city pays more to teachers on these campuses.

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Black teachers across the city also received two and a half times as many deductions on the “core professionalism” portion of IMPACT, which measures things such as attendance and how teachers interact with students, families and co-workers.

Still, Black, White and Hispanic teachers are retained each year at similar rates, and highly effective ranked Black and Hispanic teachers have higher retention rates than their highly effective White colleagues.

One of the reasons may be that White teachers in the school system tend to skew younger, which means they are more transient.

Unhappiness with leadership at their school is the biggest reason for teachers leaving, according to a survey included in the study. Twenty-two percent of teachers stated leadership as their reason for leaving. Seven percent of teachers cited IMPACT as the reason for their departure, higher than the 2 percent of teachers nationally who cite dissatisfaction with the evaluation system as a reason for leaving their schools.

“Insight data suggests that, overall, DCPS teachers cite evaluation as the reason they leave more often than teachers in other districts,” the review reads. “Low-performing DCPS teachers cite the evaluation system at three to five times the rate of high performing DCPS teachers.”

When Ferebee started his job leading the school system, he said he would address the persistent culture of fear. He helped change principals’ contracts from one year to two years — a change their union had long called for — but these are the first changes he plans to make union.

He said the study is the first step in making changes and plans to meet with the union and school leaders to determine how to move forward and what else needs to be assessed.

Among the next steps: Ferebee said the school system would develop anti-bias training for the people who evaluate teachers. According to the D.C.’s data, 70 percent of people who evaluate teachers are Black and 23 percent are White.

The school system will also provide more teacher training opportunities and short webinars to teachers explaining the evaluation system.

“We are not going to abandon a tool that has been helpful because there are some challenges with implementation,” Ferebee said. “You deal with those challenges and continue on with the spirit of improvement and get better.”

After the study’s release, the Washington Teachers’ Union said D.C. school system should be making more drastic changes to IMPACT based on the findings, calling the city’s response “monumentally weak.”

“It’s stunning that DCPS clings to a fatally flawed, unfair evaluation system when there are so many effective models that we could adapt that actually help teachers and students and aren’t punitive or cause anxiety,” union President Jaqueline Pogue Lyons wrote in a statement.

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