Before Jason Kamras was named superintendent of the Richmond public school district in late 2017, he was a big deal in D.C. Public Schools.
He was National Teacher of the Year in 2005 (he taught math) and later took several senior leadership roles, including one titled chief of “human capital” (really).
In that role, Kamras helped create and implement an assessment system for teachers and other adults in D.C. schools that was on the leading edge of a movement to evaluate teachers by student standardized test scores. Those evaluations were used to reward and punish educators. Michelle Rhee, then chancellor of the D.C. school system, was a leader of that movement, and the teacher evaluation system they developed, called IMPACT, was a national model embraced in part by other states.
Launched in 2009, IMPACT’s key evaluative elements were student standardized test scores and the results of classroom observations from “master” teachers. Over the year, the emphasis put on each component changed and observations of teachers were turned over to principals.
For several years, all adults in a school building were graded in part on student test scores, including the custodial staff and the people who worked in the lunch room, the idea being that everybody contributed to the school’s climate. IMPACT used methods of data analysis that were not considered especially reliable or valid for high-stakes purposes, but supporters of test-based school reform didn’t seem to mind.
Kamras was the second face of IMPACT behind Rhee, and when he was selected to be the chief of Richmond schools last November, many wondered whether he planned to bring a similar system for evaluating teachers to his new post.
The question gained new urgency just a few weeks after his selection. That’s when a scandal broke in D.C. schools that had some roots in IMPACT.
NPR and WAMU reported that many students who graduated from Ballou High School in 2017 had so many absences they should not have received a diploma. But they were awarded anyway. Teachers reported getting pressure from administrators to pass kids who were chronically absent, and worried about getting bad IMPACT evaluations if they didn’t.
In January, the D.C. government released a report saying the problem went beyond Ballou: More than 11 percent of graduates receiving a diploma from a D.C. public high school in 2017 did not show up to class for most of the academic year.
So what would Kamras do in Richmond?
For a little while, he wouldn’t say. But recently he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that no, after all, he wouldn’t bring IMPACT to Richmond. Why not?
Here’s what he said while speaking at the Richmond Police Training Academy:
“My thinking on this has evolved.”
He said he used to think test scores were “everything,” and he continued, “I still think it’s important, but I’ve evolved to a place where there are a lot of other things to consider when you’re talking about teacher evaluation.”
Kamras later told a Times-Dispatch reporter:
“The idea of high expectations for everyone — myself, teachers, students — is certainly something that I believe in and something that will be a part of my leadership here,” he said. “But how that looks concretely is something we need to explore with our educators, students and families.
“What I can say for certain: I am not bringing IMPACT to Richmond.”
Kamras did not respond to numerous emails and phone messages to discuss this.
So one of the architects of IMPACT is trying to distance himself from it because, as he said, his “thinking on this has evolved.” Kamras has apparently discovered what critics were trying to tell him all along: Teaching is a complicated endeavor and can’t be reduced to test scores.