DC Leads the Way With Test-Based Teacher Evaluations

Although the ability to fire teachers for poor performance has been one of the most contentious issues defining the relationship between teachers unions and their local districts, in Washington, D.C. the mechanism to remove instructors who are preforming poorly has been in place since 2009.

Usage of student achievement metrics in comprehensive teacher evaluation systems and therefore allow them to have an impact on hiring and firing decisions was one of the points of disagreement that led to the Chicago teacher strike which concluded last Tuesday.

According to the Washington Post, since the system went into effect more than three years ago, it has led to the termination of nearly 400 teachers. Just last month, 98 Washington teachers were notified that they were being relieved of their jobs because their evaluation results were below the threshold required to maintain employment in the district. And far from the layoffs arousing a bad reaction from the union representing Washington teachers, the union leadership has actually expressed support for its use and also thanked district officials for softening the criteria used for employment decisions.

“It was a goal of mine to get to a point where this is business as usual,” schools chancellor Kaya Henderson said. “Any well-functioning organization fires people for performance, and that’s going to be a regular occurrence. Every high-performing organization also recognizes and rewards the highest achievers, and that’s now a regular occurrence.”

Although supporters of the new system have said that holding teachers accountable for student performance generally serves to improve the quality of instruction, there are those who feel that the only thing new evaluation systems have done is increase staff turnover and consequently make good teachers more wary about taking jobs in district schools. To support their argument, critics point to the fact that over the years the system has been in place, students have shown only a very modest improvement in academic achievement, based on standardized test results.

“We have gone from a system where almost no one was terminated, no matter how bad, to the other extreme, where good teachers as well as bad are terminated,” said Mary Levy, an attorney and a longtime analyst of city education policy. “The latter is probably more damaging due to the stress and demoralization it causes.”

Washington was one of the first districts in the nation to be given permission to use student test scores to assess teacher effectiveness, although administrators didn’t exercise this option until the severely underperforming school system was taken over by then-Mayor Adrian Fenty and his handpicked schools leader Michelle Rhee.

During the three years of Rhee’s leadership, over 1,000 teachers lost their jobs for poor performance and misconduct, including questionable sexual behavior towards the students. However, Fenty’s defeat in the Democratic primary three years later, in an election that was widely viewed as being mostly about Rhee’s performance as chancellor, led to her resignation.

The new mayor, Vincent Gray, with Kaya Henderson as his lieutenant, sought to temper the fiery rhetoric used by Rhee — but that didn’t mean that they were looking to walk back the reforms she brought about in the district, including the new assessment system.

Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said the discussions about teacher quality have been more respectful under Gray and Henderson. That’s one reason he’s working to change the system from within, rather than pushing to scrap it entirely. Starting this school year, test scores only account for 35 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, down from 50 percent under the previous model.

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