DC Schools show the value of staying the course on a controversial teacher evaluation system

Today brought some good news about teacher evaluation, an important education improvement that is largely out of favor with school districts and sidelined by the federal government.

A new research report sponsored by Education Next suggests that a once-controversial plan to re-imagine the way teachers are reviewed and compensated in Washington D.C. is accomplishing its ultimate goal: To improve student performance.

How is that happening? The strongest teachers are rewarded for their top-notch performance, with salary bumps and bonuses of up to $25,000. The weakest teachers are leaving the system, which is improving student outcomes in high-poverty schools because that’s where the weakest teachers tend to be clustered. And the teachers in the middle–where the vast majority of teachers are rated–receive specific feedback and concrete incentives to improve their practice. The researchers wrote:

“IMPACT (is) a seminal effort by the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) to link teacher retention and pay to their performance. Under IMPACT, the district sets detailed standards for high-quality instruction, conducts multiple observations, assesses individual performance based on evidence of student progress, and retains and rewards teachers based on annual ratings. Looking across our analyses, we see that under IMPACT, DCPS has dramatically improved the quality of teaching in its schools—likely contributing to its status as the fastest-improving large urban school system in the United States as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.”

So why does this matter for school districts where the stakes aren’t as high or the spotlight as bright?

Because teacher quality is the most important factor in improving schools and student outcomes. And because there was a time when re-imagining teacher evaluation was the darling of school reform, and it’s time to get that back on the front burner.

There was this thing called Race to the Top, where federal education leaders offered more than $4 billion in grants to states and school districts willing make significant improvements in, among other things, the way they evaluate teachers and principals.

But teachers and unions pushed back hard on the more rigorous evaluation systems, and as soon as there was no more federal money on the table, many states watered down their evaluation plans or dragged out implementation—so this crucial reform quickly devolved from darling to distraction.

With a return to local control, there is a lesson here for school districts that have held onto ineffective teacher evaluation systems because they don’t want to risk the political backlash to recreate a system that takes a lot of work and long-term commitment. But Washington D.C.’s perseverance and ultimate success should serve as an example for districts large and small–in smaller cities and sprawling suburbs–because the goal is worthy and the payoff is meaningful. So says the report:

“The DCPS story shows that it may be politically challenging to adopt high-stakes evaluation systems, but it is not impossible. And it shows that well-designed and carefully implemented teacher evaluations can serve as an important district improvement strategy—so long as states and districts are also willing to make tough, performance-based decisions about teacher retention, development, and pay.”

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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