Master teacher Eric Bethel passes time between teacher observations at Eaton Elementary School in the District's Cleveland Park neighborhood in 2011. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Columnist

More than five years after the departure of Washington’s most famous schools chief, one more pillar of the Michelle Rhee era has fallen. Her most unusual innovation — assessing teachers with independent evaluators — will be gone by this fall.

Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s successor as D.C. Public Schools chancellor, has joined with key aide Jason Kamras to toss out Rhee’s $5 million-a-year system, giving principals the sole responsibility for rating teachers. They also have canceled standard training workshops and will focus teacher improvement instead on weekly meetings of teacher teams.

Henderson, usually cautious, is daring to prove that principals can be effective and honest evaluators, despite much evidence to the contrary in the nation’s school systems. Kamras said fortified principal recruitment and training programs will prevent what happens in most districts, where principals spend little time in classrooms and give nearly every teacher a satisfactory rating to keep the peace.

“We have an entire training program — complete with a $1 million online, video-based training platform,” Kamras said. Two initiatives, the Mary Jane Patterson Fellowship and the Align programs, prepare educators to run schools and observe staff. The Patterson fellowships “trained nearly half of the principals we have hired over the last few years. It involves 18 months of training prior to the principalship,” he said.

A new evaluation system backed by D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson makes principals responsible for rating teachers. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The weight of the change is on Kamras’s shoulders. He was selected by Rhee to assemble and run the previous system. Some teachers liked the independent evaluators, but others thought they were a distraction. Kamras was a creative math teacher at John Philip Sousa Middle School for several years, pioneering ways to make contact with parents. He was named National Teacher of the Year in 2005. His current title is chief of instructional practice.

A few people miss Rhee and her ideas, even though they usually won’t admit it because her tenure inspires such distress. The city’s three most recent school chancellors — Clifford Janey, Rhee and Henderson — have led a slow, messy, contentious transition from the D.C. schools’ past focus on politics and personal agendas to more emphasis on improving teaching and learning. But there are still many achievement gaps.

Rhee streamlined a clunky school bureaucracy, set higher standards for principals and teachers, raised salaries, and reduced the traditional hostility toward charter schools, but she was erratic. She changed principals as often as I lose golf balls. It was chaotic and frustrating. Veteran school staffers complained to their families and friends. Voters fired the mayor who hired Rhee, and Rhee left.

Henderson and Kamras have managed, somewhat surprisingly, to gain the support of the two subsequent mayors. They have fended off the panic that often descends on urban school districts every three years, leading to new leadership but little improvement in achievement.

As my colleague Emma Brown pointed out in her article revealing the evaluation and training changes, D.C. Public Schools posted faster growth than any other big-city system on a key federal achievement test in 2015. Also, a study by researchers at Stanford University and the University of Virginia said that the replacement of teachers rated poorly by the district’s Impact evaluation system led to four-month gains in reading and math.

The money saved from ending independent evaluations will be invested in better teacher development, Kamras said. Coaches who are experts in particular subjects and grade levels will work with teacher teams to improve classroom progress. Students also will be surveyed about their teachers.

The key to the success of such ventures is not only good training of principals, but identifying the best talent, and not just those applicants with the most friends at headquarters. Kamras said the district has “tripled the size of the principal recruitment and selection team, and completely revamped our selection process.”

It sounds good. Putting intense focus on principal quality works in many charter schools. But it requires more care and support for school leaders than Rhee gave. We shall see how well Henderson and Kamras have learned that lesson.