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July 15, 2011 1:00 PM Teacher Evaluation and the Triumph of Empiricism

By Kevin Carey

A year ago, Adrian Fenty was the mayor of Washington, DC and Michelle Rhee was the chancellor of DC Public Schools. Rhee had made overhauling the DC system of teacher evaluation the centerpiece of her controversial and widely noted reforms. Instead of the standard system of seniority-based raises and nobody ever being fired for bad teaching, Rhee wanted to give the best teachers big raises and show the worst teachers the door.

The American Federation of Teachers was so alarmed by the prospect of the DC teachers union acceding to this plan that AFT President Randi Weingarten shoved aside local leadership and forced Rhee into a protracted series of negotiations. But because teacher evaluation is legally excluded from collective bargaining in DC, Rhee was able to put her system in place unilaterally. After a year of evaluations under the new IMPACT evaluation system, she made good on her promise: big raises for the highest performers in a time when teacher salaries were being cut and frozen in other cities, pink slips for the lowest performers, and a one-year grace period for hundreds more “minimally effective” teachers who would be fired if they didn’t improve. Unable to stop the plan through negotiations, the AFT turned to raw politics, pouring $1 million into Vincent Gray’s campaign to unseat Fenty. Gray won, and Rhee’s divisive tenure soon came to an end.

And what happened next? Vincent Gray appointed Rhee’s deputy, Kaya Henderson, as the new schools chancellor. Henderson continued to implement all of the policies she had helped develop under Rhee, including IMPACT. And a year later, as the Post reported this morning, IMPACT continued to work exactly as planned: bonuses for the best teachers, hundreds of low-performers cashiered, and more minimally effective teachers put on notice that they must improve.

Notably absent from the press coverage is any outrage from the national AFT. What could they say? If Michelle Rhee were still the school chancellor, they could have tied IMPACT to her reputation as a polarizing, scorched-earth reformer. But everything that happened yesterday came under the auspices of their candidate and his chancellor. AFT president Randi Weingarten has ended up legitimizing the IMPACT theory of teacher evaluation in a way that Michelle Rhee could never have managed.

What happened? Is Vincent Gray a union-buster in disguise? Of course not. He’s just another example of a clear pattern in politics: Democrats running in primaries tend to be much closer to the traditional teachers union vision of education policy than Democrats who are actually responsible for running school systems and writing education laws. Bill Clinton loved charter schools. Ted Kennedy wrote NCLB. Barack Obama launched Race to the Top. Vincent Gray kept IMPACT on course. It’s not mass delusion. It’s what happens when people look at the reality of public education. Consider the graphic below (courtesy of the Post)

According to IMPACT, 65 out 4,021 teachers–less than 2 percent–were so ineffective that it made sense to terminate their positions right away. Another 141 were let go for being minimally effective for two consecutive years. Most of the teachers who were put on the one-year probation period weren’t fired yesterday. There are as many outstanding teachers in DCPS as there are low-performing teachers. Most teachers are in between the poles.

Does that sound like an unreasonable characterization of a big-city teaching workforce? No. It sounds like the product of a system that, per Susan Headden’s excellent IMPACT story, combines multiple measures of teacher effectiveness, including expert observations and evidence of student learning growth. The only reasonable critique, frankly, is that it might be too generous. But given how far ahead of the rest of the country we are, that can be forgiven. By running Michelle Rhee out of town, the AFT has accomplished precisely the thing it most feared: her vision of teacher evaluation is leading a transformation of the profession nationwide.

[Cross-posted at The Quick & the Ed]

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Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.

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