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Changes to Teacher Evaluation Haven't Worked. Or Have They? See D.C.

Over the last several years, many states and districts have overhauled their teacher evaluation systems in the hopes of being able to distinguish the good teachers from the not-so-good.

But according to recent research, not a lot has changed: Nearly all teachers across the country continue to be rated as "effective" in the classroom. And there's good evidence those scores are inflated.

So are efforts to weed out ineffective teachers via evaluation systems a bust? Broadly speaking, perhaps; but a new report in Education Next points to Washington, D.C., as a place where evaluation reform has worked. 

IMPACT, the teacher evaluation system there, the researchers say, has resulted in more differentiation in teaching ratings. It's led low-performing teachers to leave and replaced them with higher performers. And it's caused some teachers who stay in D.C. to get better.

"[U]nder IMPACT, DCPS has dramatically improved the quality of teaching in its schools," the report says. 

IMPACT was implemented in 2009 by controversial then-chancellor of D.C. Schools, Michelle Rhee. It uses both classroom observations and measures of student achievement to determine how well a teacher is doing. Those teachers deemed ineffective can be dismissed—and about 200 teachers were fired in 2010, the summer after the evaluation system went into place. Teachers who are labeled "highly effective" are eligible to receive hefty bonuses.  

The system has been controversial, with many teachers initially expressing concern that it was harder to get high marks when working in challenging schools.

The research looked at the first three years of IMPACT, though it's worth noting that the system has changed significantly since then. Teachers now receive fewer observations and they're done by principals rather than "master educators," who were meant to be independent. Test scores make up a smaller percentage of the evaluation for teachers in tested subjects and grades than previously (35 percent, down from 50 percent). And the district announced it will soon incorporate student surveys as well.

Exits and Replacements 

The report by Thomas S. Dee, a professor of education and director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford University, and James Wyckoff, an education and policy professor and director of EdPolicyWorks at the University of Virginia, combines findings from two previous studies on IMPACT, both of which Education Week has highlighted.

One study, which we covered as a working in 2013, looked at the teachers falling just above or just below the dividing line separating "minimally effective" from "effective" teachers, and compared how they performed on the subsequent evaluation.

It found that teachers who were deemed minimally effective were more likely to exit the district voluntarily. 

In addition, those teachers who were at risk of losing their jobs but stayed in the district improved their performance the next year. And those on the cusp of earning a financial incentive did the same. 

IMPACT study ednext.JPG

"The incentives IMPACT created for teachers appeared to discourage low-performing teachers from returning to the district, and among those who returned, their performance was much improved," said Dee in an interview. 

A second study, which we covered last year, found that when the low-performing teachers left and were replaced, student achievement markedly improved.

If a teacher "is leaving because they were labeled ineffective or minimally effective, we see the district is able to replace them with a more effective teacher," Dee said.

However, Dee cautions that what worked in D.C. may not work in other places. D.C. had a healthy supply of entering teachers and enough federal and foundation funding to offer large cash bonuses. And, of course, it had a chancellor who was willing to push through the politically risky reform effort.

"Both policymakers and researchers like me often see programs or policy initiatives that seem really promising in one place but may not replicate or scale well when tried other places," Dee said. "If I were advising a district, I'd say to them there's real promise in the idea that you can generate improved outcomes for your kids through sustained efforts to raise teacher quality. ... But that requires buy-in for your entire community and a thoughtful plan for implementation."


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