D.C. teacher performance evaluations are working

July 15, 2011

IN PAST YEARS there was sometimes a tendency to value D.C. schools as much for the secure employment they offered adults as for the learning they promised children. No longer.

The school system announced Friday that 309 employees, 206 of them teachers, were being dismissed for poor job performance. No pleasure can ever be taken from people losing their jobs. But there is cause for celebration if the rights of children to a quality education trump the self-interest of adults. Friday’s dismissals are a departure from recent practice when typically only a handful of teachers would be fired and then only because of gross misconduct.

“If we are to provide a world-class public education to the residents of the District of Columbia, we must have the most effective educators in the country,” said Chancellor Kaya Henderson as she unveiled results of the second year of the system’s employee evaluation system, IMPACT. Of the 206 teachers fired this year, 65 were rated ineffective and 141 were judged minimally effective for the second consecutive year. Another 104 employees were dismissed for not complying with licensure requirements.

What shouldn’t be overlooked in the attention focused on the number of teachers fired is that most of the system’s 4,100 teachers and staff members are doing a good job. Indeed, 663 teachers (that’s 16 percent) were judged highly effective and will be eligible for bonuses of up to $25,000; 290 of those were rated highly effective for the second year in a row and will also be eligible for dramatic increases in pay. Also encouraging was the fact that 58 percent of the teachers who were judged to be minimally effective last year and who decided to remain in the system improved their performance — with professional development support — to effective (227) or highly effective (11). About a third of the teachers rated minimally effective last year opted to leave the system, also a good outcome.

All that is powerful evidence of the worth of IMPACT which, contrary to uninformed criticism from its opponents, is as much about recognizing the best teachers and helping those who can improve as it is about weeding out those who can’t teach. It is true that collective bargaining agreements and powerful unions protect poor performers in too many districts. But IMPACT shows that accountability and union representation can co-exist. Because of a quirk in District law, Michelle A. Rhee, then the schools chancellor, was able to design and implement IMPACT without union approval, but D.C. teachers — when they finally got a chance — overwhelmingly voted in favor of a contract that promised high salaries for exceptional performance. And for good reason: Most teachers want to be treated as the professionals that they are.

Of course, as with any new system, there is likely to be a need for reasonable adjustments, which Ms. Henderson has demonstrated a willingness to consider. Thankfully, what she’s not willing to consider is a return to the days when having a job in the city school system might have little relation to doing the job.