Photo by US Department of Education on Flickr.

DCPS evaluates its teachers in a way that penalizes and discourages those who work in its lowest-performing schools. Its IMPACT system has been tweaked in the past, but as a teacher in a high-poverty school I hope that negotiations on a new teachers’ union contract result in an IMPACT 3.0.

In part 1 of this post I discussed how the IMPACT system evaluates some teachers in high-poverty schools unfairly by basing their scores in part on standardized tests that don’t accurately measure their students’ achievement. Today I’ll turn to another critical aspect of the system that discriminates against teachers at low-performing schools: classroom observations.

Each teacher is observed 5 times a year, 3 times by administrators at the teacher’s school and twice by independent, expert practitioners called master educators. The observations are random and unannounced, and all observers use the same scoring rubric.

The fundamental question about these observations is what their objective is. If the aim is simply to generate a numerical average based on a rubric, the current system is ideal.

But if the intent is to support and develop teachers, as it should be, then conducting 4 or 5 random observations a year isn’t effective. Observers aren’t in the classroom often enough or long enough to provide meaningful feedback.

And a one-size-fits-all observation rubric isn’t flexible enough to help teachers improve, especially new teachers. Observers need to be able to address the specific challenges faced by an individual teacher and the tools he can use to overcome them. Too often master educators are simply scoring teachers, not developing them.

In addition, the DCPS system doesn’t explicitly instruct or model what a highly effective practice looks like, especially within a specific classroom. That means the observations are akin to assessing students based on a list of standards they have not been taught.

Jason Kamras, the DCPS Chief of Human Capital, pointed out in an email that “teachers have access to instructional coaches, professional development opportunities, and rigorous curricular resources to support them in improving their practice.”

It’s true that the instructional coach at my school has been tremendously helpful, and some professional development opportunities have proved useful as well. But in my experience, not enough of them are focused on classroom management techniques and students’ social and emotional development, particularly in the context of high-needs schools. And a rigorous academic curriculum is of limited use without those things.

Just this week, DCPS announced some changes in its classroom observations. After meeting with master educators about their observations, teachers will be asked to complete an anonymous survey about the experience. In addition, in some of their reports master educators will suggest an area of focus for each teacher, recommend best practices, and include “resources and ideas about how to implement” those practices.

These could be steps in the right direction, but it remains to be seen whether they will translate into meaningful discussion and teacher development.

Classroom management

All teachers in high-poverty schools are at a disadvantage when it comes to classroom observations, but that’s particularly true in cases where test scores don’t figure into a teacher’s evaluation.  For that group of teachers, which is the majority, 75% of their final score is based on observations.

In the high-poverty neighborhood middle school where I teach, class sizes are 25 to 30. And it’s common for each class to have between 4 and 8 students who either receive behavioral counseling or have been flagged as needing it.

As a result, teachers often have to focus on classroom management rather than content. And if a master educator lacks an understanding of the school context or views “redirection” as a sign of ineffective teaching, teachers in low-performing schools may be penalized.

The most damaging aspect of random classroom observations is that they discourage risk-taking. If teachers are walking around the school building in perpetual fear, their performance will undoubtedly suffer.

Classroom observations can be critical to ensuring best practices and providing meaningful professional support, but only if they’re done well. A high-quality observation has a specific learning objective, such as classroom entry procedures. The observer must have time to model the technique and the teacher to practice it without risking a bad evaluation score. And observations must encourage risk-taking and innovation.

According to an independent report commissioned by the DC government, almost one-third (32.4%) of DCPS teachers in high-poverty schools left the school system during the 2010-11 school year. In contrast, only 13.2% of teachers in low-poverty DCPS schools left, and 9.2% of teachers in medium-poverty schools.

This isn’t difficult to understand. The last thing a teacher needs is an evaluation system that punishes his or her decision to work in a low-performing school. On the contrary, the District needs a system that encourages teachers to sign up for the most challenging assignments, not avoid them.

Bonus system

DCPS and the Washington Teachers’ Union have tried to provide that encouragement through a bonus system called IMPACT Plus. Under that program, teachers who are rated “highly effective” can earn as much as $25,000 a year in additional compensation if they work in one of the district’s lowest-performing schools. The problem is that a “highly effective” rating is virtually unattainable in those schools, especially for teachers whose evaluations depend on test scores.

According to data compiled by the DC Committee on Education, the difference in the proportions of highly effective teachers in Ward 3, DC’s most affluent neighborhood, and Ward 8, DC’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhood, is immense.

During the 2011-2012 school year, 41% of Ward 3 DCPS teachers earned a “highly effective” final rating (175 of 426 total teachers). Contrast this to Ward 8, where only 10% of teachers earned that rating (54 of 536 total DCPS teachers).

But there’s another stark contrast in that data: the disparity in student achievement between those sections of the District. Only 19% of students in Ward 3 scored below proficient on DC’s standardized tests. In Ward 8, about 66% of students were in that category.

Education policy-makers say that IMPACT is working because it’s identifying and terminating “ineffective” teachers.  But this data poses an age-old dilemma: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Does a teacher who is rated ineffective contribute to academic deficiencies in students, or do students’ academic deficiencies contribute to the teacher’s “ineffective” rating?

Let’s hope an IMPACT 3.0 comes out of the WTU contract negotiations. We need an evaluation system that is fair and reasonable. We simply cannot afford a perpetual revolving door in our most vulnerable public schools.

A version of this post appeared on Edcentrist.com.