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The Washington Post

The Problem with How Rhee Fired Teachers

Valerie Strauss

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee was entirely correct when she said that “every child in a District of Columbia public school has a right to a highly effective teacher” in every classroom.

But if Rhee really thinks that her IMPACT evaluation system of teachers is going to get the system there, then she is fooling herself, and everybody else who agrees with her.

And this is a problem not only for 165 teachers she fired Friday after they received poor appraisals under the system, but for the rest of the teaching corps in D.C. public schools who have yet to go under the IMPACT scalpel.

Rhee, tough as ever, fired a total of 241 teachers; the others were let go because they did not have the proper licensing, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind law, my colleague Bill Turque wrote in a Washington Post story Saturday.

It may well be that all 165 teachers fired because of bad evaluations under IMPACT were bad at their jobs, but IMPACT isn’t designed well enough to tell, according to a number of teachers and other educators.

According to Turque, about 20 percent of the District’s classroom teachers -- all of them reading and math instructors in grades 4 through 8 -- were evaluated on student improvement in scores on the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System, or DC CAS. Those were the only grades and subjects for which there is annual test score data from DC CAS. “Value-added” -- a misnomer that ranks with the best of them -- will constitute 50 percent of their evaluation.

Judging teachers on the test scores of their students is all the rage in school reform these days -- thanks so much, Education Secretary Arne Duncan -- but, frankly, this is unconscionable for several reasons, not the least of which is that DC CAS wasn’t designed to evaluate teachers. That’s a basic violation of testing law. Ask any evaluation expert.

Think back to an important test you bombed because you were tired, sick or just got brain freeze. How would you like your pay linked to the results?

But there’s more to the evaluation system than mere test scores, and this makes almost as much or, rather, little sense.


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Under IMPACT, all teachers are supposed to receive five 30-minute classroom observations during the school year, three by a school administrator and two by an outside "master educator" with a background in the instructor’s subject.

They are scored against a "teaching and learning framework" with 22 different measures in nine categories. Among the criteria are classroom presence, time management, clarity in presenting the objectives of a lesson and ensuring that students across all levels of learning ability understand the material.

A number of teachers never got the full five evaluations, apparently because a number of master teachers hired to do the jobs quit, according to sources in the school system.

But even if they all were, let’s look closely at this: In 30 minutes, a teacher is supposed to demonstrate all 22 different teaching elements. What teacher demonstrates 22 teaching elements -- some of which are not particularly related -- in 30 minutes? Suppose a teacher takes 30 minutes to introduce new material and doesn’t have time to show. ... Oh well. Bad evaluation.

In a 2009 story, Turque wrote: “IMPACT documents suggest that no nuance will be left unexamined in the 30-minute classroom visits. Observers are expected to check every five minutes for the fraction of students paying attention. Teachers are supposed to show that they can tailor instruction to at least three 'learning styles' (auditory, visual or tactile, for example). They can lower their scores by 'using sarcasm that visibly hurts or decreases the comfort of one or more students.' Among the ways instructors can demonstrate that they are instilling student belief in success is through 'affirmation chants, poems and cheers.' "

And there’s more, which you can see for yourself here.

IMPACT is actually a collection of 20 different evaluation systems for teachers in different capacities and other school personnel. One thing teachers say it does not do is provide enough support for teachers found wanting to improve.

The overall impact of IMPACT is not only unfair but not likely to do the job it is supposed to do: Root out bad teachers. Some great teachers are likely to be tossed out, and others, who know how to play along when the observers come in but don’t do much when they aren’t, could get a pass.

Of course, every school system should fire bad teachers. But they need a sophisticated and fair system to do that, and so far, D.C. doesn’t have one.

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Valerie Strauss writes the Answer Sheet blog for the Washington Post.

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