Coverage of education — like most of public policy — tends to gravitate towards big personalities. For a while there was the Michelle Rhee vs. Diane Ravich slugfest, or this summer’s grudge match of Rahm Emmanuel vs. Karen Lewis, which elevated the latter from a trivia question into a national figure (how many Chicagoans could have named the head of the CTU previously)?
But it’s important — on both sides — to separate the recognizable personality from the more faceless policy. So it’s great to see a report from The New Teachers Project (TNTP) on the Washington DC evaluation and compensation plan known as IMPACT, now stripped from the personality of Michelle Rhee, so that the policy can be evaluated by itself.
TNTP focuses much of their attention on what they term “The Irreplaceables” (roughly the top quintile of teachers, and hat tip to Pixar). As the report notes, no large urban district has undergone as much extensive change to teacher evaluation and compensation as have the public schools in Washington DC. To quote from the TNTP website:
Our new case study, Keeping Irreplaceables in D.C. Public Schools, shows that DCPS has moved toward smarter teacher retention mainly by raising expectations and removing consistently low-performing teachers—without alienating top teachers as many people had feared. Just two years into its reforms, DCPS was keeping 88 percent of its Irreplaceables but just 45 percent of its low performers.
The report also shows that DPCS is missing opportunities to make even more progress—especially when it comes to helping individual school leaders create the cultures of respect and rigor that Irreplaceables want.
The introduction of the IMPACT plan generated considerable controversy, but as with so many chicken littles, the sky remained overhead, and these seem to be many positive changes (as well as a few caveats). The top findings from the report:
- DCPS now keeps many more of its best teachers than its worst;
- Enforcing rigorous expectations has not driven away the best teachers;
- DCPS continues to miss opportunities to keep even more of its best teachers;
- The best teachers are less likely to teach in the schools that need them most;
- Many principals struggle to create school cultures and systems where the best teachers want to work.
I think it is the last bullet point that is too often overlooked. To ask teachers to be their best, we need to put them in a position where they can be their best. I’ve long advocated that we have better teachers than we do teaching – the obstacles that are put in front of teachers on a regular basis are ones that would never be tolerated in other professions. One of the few bright spots in Colorado is that many schools are working on creating intentional school cultures that allows teachers to be their best — and often this means less inflexible district oversight and the ability to allocate resources at the local level. Programs that try to change the way we evaluate and compensate teachers overlook the importance of autonomy and school design at their peril.
There is a lot of work to do on teacher evaluation and compensation. In Colorado, my published view is that SB 191 will be neither the great success its supporters hope, nor wreak the devastation that some critics expect. The legislative insertion into what should be a school-based policy came only as a last resort — when both districts and teacher representatives proved incapable of coming to a reasonable compromise.
Some school districts are proactively taking on the tough topics of teacher evaluation and compensation, and not waiting for legislators to guide them (for a local example, see Harrison). We should have multiple school districts — and schools — develop their own evaluation and compensation programs, take a hard look at which ones work (and there should be more than one), and not expect a one-size-fits-all solution. We need policies that belong to no single personality but that can work with many.
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