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Teacher Evaluation Primed for Overhaul in D.C.

The District of Columbia has announced a host of changes to its well-known teacher-evaluation system, IMPACT, including doing away with the independent "master educators" that have helped to observe and score teachers since 2009.

Among other things, The Washington Post reports, the city will return to using a "value added" measure based on student tests for some teachers, after freezing that element two years ago during the transition to a new test. It will also introduce a new element into the reviews: surveys of students, which have been adopted in only a few other evaluation systems nationally.

The city will also begin using a revised teaching framework for the observations.

Concurrent with those changes, DCPS also announced plans to revamp professional development for teachers. The key thing to know is that the professional development will be school-based and far less general, instead focusing specifically on specific subjects. Each school will have a math lead and a literacy lead (an assistant principal, coach, or teacher leader) who will work with teams of educators in weekly meetings to improve planning, observe, and provide feedback on lesson execution. At the secondary level teachers will lead similar activities in the other content areas. The city is banking that this professional development will be more effective than traditional types, given the number of studies over the past five or so years that have pointed out that much of it is costly and ineffective.

Many details of the changes still need to be fleshed out.

For one, it's unclear what specific changes will be made to the city's teaching standards, which are still being revised. The precise weight to be given to student surveys hasn't been announced yet. Finally, the elimination of the master educators means building administrators will be doing all of the observations from now on. (One of the reasons D.C. initially relied on master educators was to counter potential favoritism by principals.)

A spokeswoman for the city did say that teachers won't get as many formal observations under the revised IMPACT as they did previously. 

These amount to fairly big changes in how D.C. measures teacher performance. And that matters, because research from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has found that multiple ratings by different raters helped to increase the overall reliability of teacher observations. (The Gates Foundation provides support for coverage of college- and career-ready standards in Education Week.)

DCPS officials said the changes were developed with teachers and principals. In addition, they noted, certain windows of the school year will be "off limits" to evaluators, so that teachers can feel safer trying out new activities and teaching methods without fear of getting a bad score if they don't work out at first. Over the years, teachers have complained that the system has felt confining—in a report issued a while back, one teacher reportedly said she was told her Shakespeare lesson wasn't "IMPACT ready"—so this appears to be an attempt to address that thread of criticism.

The Washington Teachers Union doesn't appear to be overwhelmingly thrilled with the changes so far, noting the sheer number of new initiatives the city has rolled out over the past decade. 

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