A D.C. Council hearing meant to solicit teachers’ views on improving city schools drew dozens of witnesses Saturday and offered a glimpse of the wide range of educators’ perspectives, particularly on the District’s controversial and politically charged teacher evaluations.
At one end of the spectrum was Washington Teachers’ Union President Elizabeth Davis, who called the evaluations — known as IMPACT — “a miserable failure” that has led to the most disempowered and frustrated teaching force she’s seen in 41 years.
At the other end were teachers who said that the evaluations clarified what was expected of them and pushed them to improve. “IMPACT is not a perfect system, but it has made me a better teacher and ensured I show up 100 percent every day,” said Jonte Lee, a teacher at Wilson High.
And in the middle were teachers who said that the evaluations have value but fail to account for the vast differences among the city’s students and penalize teachers who choose to work in the most challenging schools.
“We must be careful that
IMPACT is not forcing good teachers out of our lowest-performing schools,” said Michelle Lee, a math teacher at Cardozo Education Campus, who spoke of having nightmares about losing her job. “The stress and paranoia I feel on a daily basis . . . is frankly too much,” she said.
The hearing was called by D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the Education Committee and a possible mayoral candidate. He announced this month that he is exploring whether to jump into the 2014 race.
Catania, the only council member present for most of the five-hour hearing, heard testimony from teachers in traditional and charter schools on issues including special education, professional development, the budget and assessments. But most of the time was devoted to testimony about IMPACT, a cornerstone of the effort to improve the city’s long-struggling school system.
Introduced by then-Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee in 2009, IMPACT was among the first evaluations in the nation to link teacher job security and pay to student test scores. The policy also requires multiple classroom observations each year, producing a score that sorts teachers into categories from highly effective to ineffective. Low-scoring teachers are fired.
The D.C. Council has no direct role in shaping teacher evaluations; that is up to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. Catania said he held the hearing to give teachers a chance to speak about what is working and what needs to be changed.
The forum also gave Catania a chance to signal where he stands on issues that matter to teachers. Members of the teachers’ union endorsed Gray four years ago but have been disappointed — judging by members’ boos and jeers during a raucous mayoral debate last week — with his support for
IMPACT and other Rhee-era reforms.
Catania called IMPACT “the foundation for a very solid evaluation system,” but he said it needs reviewing to avoid unintended consequences, including high teacher turnover. He said he has no problem using evaluations to determine who should be fired, as long as the evaluations are fair, and he cautioned against relying too heavily on standardized test scores.
Catania, perhaps the council’s fiercest critic of Gray, wondered aloud why many of the teachers who spoke favorably about the evaluations submitted testimony on the same letterhead and in the same font and format.
Several of those teachers said they were insulted by the suggestion that they had been told what to say. School system officials encouraged them to speak and provided a template, they said, because they had never testified before. But, they said, no one handed them talking points.
“All the good things I said about the district were genuine,” said Patricia West, a 28-year veteran of the school system.