NOT ALL THE D.C. teachers rated highly effective were willing to accept the generous bonuses they were offered last year. The rejections from 40 percent of the eligible teachers were not particularly surprising, considering the bad publicity that surrounded the District’s revolutionary but controversial evaluation system. But more teachers are accepting the bonuses this year, and that’s a healthy sign of the growing appreciation for policies that honor teaching by recognizing and rewarding excellence.
Of the 670 teachers eligible for bonuses this year, some 70 percent accepted payments that ranged from $3,000 to $25,000. That’s an increase of 10 percent over last year. And new this year is a program that boosts the base salaries — by as much as $18,000 — of teachers rated highly effective for two years in a row under the IMPACT system. Teachers who accept the extra money forfeit some job security, basically benefits that would accrue if teachers were released from their schools. The downside of giving up those rights proved to be not that significant; teachers rated highly effective are less likely to be let go, and if program changes or enrollment declines do eliminate their jobs, chances are another principal will snap them up. In other words, teachers discovered the best job protection is a job well done.
The experience of these talented teachers shows the benefits of a system that is steeped in accountability. When IMPACT, one of the signature reforms of former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, was introduced, it was attacked by the Washington Teachers’ Union as a draconian punishment for teachers. To be sure, the system, which holds teachers responsible for what their students learn and uses test scores as part of the assessment, has been instrumental in weeding out habitually ineffective teachers. It’s also been used to identify teachers in need of help so they (and their students) can do better. And, as these 474 teachers show, it’s used to reward and retain those who do exceptional work.
It is not always easy to judge how well someone is doing, but IMPACT, even with some bugs still being worked out, is a far better and fairer system than its predecessor, in which everyone was pretty much judged — and paid — the same. Rather than disrespecting teachers by treating them as interchangeable parts, IMPACT honors the profession by acknowledging there should be extra compensation for those with extraordinary talent or those who achieve in high-poverty schools or those who teach subjects for which there are not enough teachers.
Financial support for the program comes from private philanthropies that embraced Ms. Rhee’s aggressive reforms, but that private money will run out after the 2012 fiscal year. School officials say they are committed to finding the money to continue it. That’s good; having promised teachers their work would be valued, there can be no going back.