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Big Changes for DCPS

Note: This week, Kelsey Hamilton, a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute, will be guest-blogging.

As summer rolls to a close (with no one bemoaning the end of the blistering DC heat), a new school year has begun. In the previous weeks, students and parents have been shopping for notebooks and pencils, and teachers have been setting up classrooms and lesson plans. In the District of Columbia, though, public school teachers had a little extra to prepare for—a new professional development program entitled "LEAP." In the words of a DC Public Schools (DCPS) official, LEAP aims to "identify and plan for the key enabling conditions that are the foundation of successfully distributed leadership in schools."

A little confusing? Sure. But after heading to Ballou High School to sit in on a teacher training session this summer, I had a better idea of where this initiative came from, what it's hoping to accomplish, and how the details of the program work. This week on RHSU, I'll give you the low-down on LEAP, along with a few changes undergoing the DCPS teacher evaluation system. 

To set the scene, let's go back to 2009, when Michelle Rhee was chancellor of DCPS. To improve teacher evaluation practices and boost student success in the struggling school system, Rhee rolled out a new initiative entitled IMPACT. Under IMPACT, teachers were evaluated on several different performance components and given an overall score for the year. Depending on this score, teachers could be awarded a bonus of up to $20,000 or (on the other end of the spectrum) be dismissed.

Trying to capture the most important aspects of teacher performance is difficult, but DCPS came to a solution by dividing the IMPACT score into three main components. The score was comprised of student achievement data (the majority of which was a value-added measure based on students' PARCC scores), the "Teaching and Learning Framework" (a measure of instructional expertise), and commitment to the community (how much the teacher supported school efforts). Although student achievement data made up the largest part of the IMPACT score (clocking in at 50%) for teachers of tested subjects, the Teaching and Learning Framework came in at a close second at 40%. This percentage increased to 75% for teachers of non-tested subjects.

So just how was instructional expertise evaluated? This portion was calculated based on formal observations conducted by principals, assistant principals and third party observers called "master educators." These master educators were not from the school; they tended to be retired district teachers who traveled from classroom to classroom and had detailed knowledge of the subject under observation. Evaluations were unannounced, lasted for 30 minutes each, and occurred up to 5 times each year depending on teacher experience. As a result of the observations, a teacher could be listed as anywhere from "highly effective" (the best rating under IMPACT) to "ineffective" (the worst).  

IMPACT made a large, controversial splash in the evaluation world. One recent study showed that the initiative helped DCPS teachers improve their instructional skills and encouraged low-performing teachers to leave the district and high-performing teachers to do even better. But criticism was also rampant. Some saw IMPACT's methods as overly punitive, with DCPS laying off almost 2 percent of its teachers in the first year of the program's implementation. Some criticism was levelled specifically at the observations. Washington Teachers Union president Elizabeth Davis argued that teachers didn't have enough information about what evaluators were seeking. One DCPS social studies teacher complained about the new system's cut-and-dried evaluation checklist, saying that "if IMPACT had its way, each lesson would mirror a specific pattern each day. And if you do that, you get yourself bonuses, accolades and the respect of the [DC Public Schools] administration."

DCPS's new program, LEAP, along with additional tweaks to the IMPACT system, may be good news for these critics. LEAP intends to provide support for teachers in terms of content knowledge and mastery, as well as to collaborate on lesson plans and teaching methods in a group setting. On Wednesday, I'll share some details on the LEAP initiative, and why DCPS leaders believe the program is a step in the right direction for teachers. 

--Kelsey Hamilton

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