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Taking Measure of D.C.’s IMPACT Program

By / 12.10.2009

As states craft their Race to the Top applications, they will likely focus on how to improve teacher and principal quality, as 28 percent of the points that they can earn fall under the “Great Teachers and Leaders” category. The criterion covers, among other things, the development of evaluation systems for teachers and principals, and the use of those evaluations to inform key decisions.

The press release announcing Race to the Top stressed a key point about the teacher-evaluation component:

…states should use multiple measures to evaluate teachers and principals, including a strong emphasis on the growth in achievement of their students. But it also reinforces that successful applicants will need to have rigorous teacher and principal evaluation programs and use the results of teacher evaluations to inform what happens in the schools.

That emphasis on “multiple measures” informs D.C. Public Schools’ new teacher evaluation system: IMPACT. The evaluation program offers a combination of approaches. Teachers of grades 4-8 mathematics and reading, for whom value-added data can be collected, will have 50 percent of their evaluation based on DC-CAS student achievement data. But another 40 percent will come from something called the Teaching and Learning Framework. For teachers in non-tested grades and subjects, the Teaching and Learning Framework comprises an even greater proportion – 80 percent – of their evaluation.

The Teaching and Learning Framework calls for five observations of teachers by administrators and master teachers in a given school year. Evaluation is broken down into three major categories: planning, teaching, and increasing effectiveness. Planning has to do with preparation of the content as well as the creation of a safe and productive learning environment; teaching gets into engagement, instructional techniques, and interaction with the students (among other factors); and increasing effectiveness deals with student assessment and the use of data to inform decision-making.

The use of more frequent observation of teachers and a clear rubric fills an important gap in teacher accountability. Since value-added student achievement data is currently available for only a small cohort of the teaching force, reliable tools for evaluating the rest of the teachers are crucial. We need rigorous ways to identify great and struggling teachers, but also to help the ones in the middle range improve. It’s easy to identify poor teachers; the tougher part is knowing how to help them improve or when to cut the cord. The Teaching and Learning Framework helps to define and show teachers paths to improvement through post-observation conferences.

George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, has been critical of IMPACT, saying, “It’s very punitive. It takes the art of teaching and turns it into bean counting.” A union-administered focus group and survey found that the primary concerns revolve around inadequate training under the system prior to implementation and fears of its use for punitive measures rather than as a tool for improving teacher quality. Early reports on completed observations indicate some bumps in execution. Whether feeling satisfied, overrated, or underrated, teachers have expressed disappointment in the quality of suggestions offered by administrators and master teachers during post-observation conferences. Given the culture of mistrust and fear that permeates many schools, teachers are understandably skeptical and justified in noting that they cannot possibly hit all points of the rubric during a 30-minute observation. However, teachers must also recognize that their openness to the evaluation process is integral to its success and to building a better culture in schools.

The IMPACT program sets a process for clear expectations, clear feedback, and clear growth plans. While value-added testing is a useful measure for student achievement, IMPACT is a worthwhile experiment in pursuing a more expansive evaluation of teacher quality. Offering not just a goal but a pathway for improvement, it’s an innovation worth keeping an eye on.