A few days ago, 206 “ineffective” or twice-rated “minimally effective” teachers were dismissed from their positions at the District of Columbia Public Schools thanks to the District’s new teacher-evaluation system, IMPACT. As we wrote in yesterday’s Gadfly,
D.C.’s terminations over the past two years mark a major milestone: the first time that teachers have been systematically, objectively assessed—and then held to account for their performance. Not even Montgomery County or Cincinnati (both of which are praised for their teacher-eval systems) can boast the rigors or consequences of IMPACT. What’s more, IMPACT has survived the Fenty-Gray mayoral shift (and the exit of its architect, Michelle Rhee). It looks like the evaluation system is here to stay.
But should we really be celebrating, as Kevin Carey has asserted, “the triumph of empiricism”? Not just yet.
Claims that the “system is working” are, at best, premature and, at worse, detrimental to that very system’s future. (Is it no more than a fancy way to axe teachers, the opponents may say?) Tallying the number of educators fired cannot be the gauge for assessing the success or effectiveness of a program like IMPACT. And banners touting the program’s success cannot be raised on the basis that all fired teachers are ineffective; that assumption is not necessarily valid.
IMPACT may be a ground-breaking new evaluation system. Still, it’s one that needs adjustments and improvements (check out this report from Susan Headden at Ed Sector for more). For example, there is an observed inequitable distribution of IMPACT’s teacher ratings: More quality teachers are found in the already high-performing (and wealthy) wards (like Wards 3 and 4) and more ineffective teachers are found in the low-performing wards (like Wards 7 and 8). This may be an issue of teacher-quality distribution. But could it also show a flaw in IMPACT—that it’s harder for teachers in already low-performing wards to get an “effective” rating, bringing into question the fairness of the evaluation process? If so, one unintended negative consequence of IMPACT would be that it would lead to more firings (potentially unwarranted) in schools where quality teachers are needed most—and maybe lead to a flight of good teachers out of Wards 7 and 8, as they might garner better marks for the same effort and skill-base in Wards 3 or 4.
While others districts (like Prince George’s County, adjacent to D.C. and plagued with similar problems) have opted to pilot their new evaluation programs before full-fledged implementation, DCPS dove into IMPACT whole-hog (there is an education-quality crisis sweeping the District, after all).
Now, as a teacher, I resent the idea of Ms. Jones or Mr. Thomas being fired due to an untested evaluation process. I resent them having to carry that “ineffective” stigma, effectively barring them from obtaining another teaching position. Yet, as a parent, I resent the idea of my son being assigned an utterly ineffective teacher because there is no rigorous and valid teacher-evaluation system to ensure that those who can’t teach don’t. This is not a dilemma that is easy to solve.
There is a growing consensus that teacher-evaluation systems are in need of major overhaul and that staying our current course is not an option. There is also somewhat of a consensus over the use of student achievement as a component of such evaluation as well as suggestions on how to evaluate such evaluation systems. However, we’ve a long way yet to go; it is way too early to claim that IMPACT “is working.” Several years of careful and rigorous data analysis are needed before the IMPACT program can earn that label. Until then, much caution is required and it would be prudent not to stand on the deck of DCPS’s flagship proclaiming “mission accomplished.”