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DC needs to increase the number of highly qualified teachers who work in high-poverty schools. But doing that could require a fundamental change in the way DC Public Schools evaluates and supports teachers.

DCPS teachers who get high ratings are more likely to work in schools serving relatively affluent students.  That’s typical of school districts across the country, and the US Department of Education has given all state education agencies—including the District’s—until June to come up with a plan to correct the imbalance.

Under DCPS’s teacher evaluation system, called IMPACT, teachers in affluent Ward 3 get ratings that are significantly above those in lower-income Wards 7 and 8, according to a study based on data from 2010 to 2013. Another study shows that 41% of teachers in Ward 3 received IMPACT’s top rating of “highly effective” in 2011-12, as compared to only 9% in Ward 8.

DCPS bases IMPACT scores on a number of factors, including classroom observations and growth in students’ test scores for teachers of tested grades and subjects. Charter schools have their own methods of evaluating teachers.

DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education is currently trying to come up with a plan to bring more highly qualified teachers to high-poverty schools, in both the charter and DCPS sectors. It’s not clear how OSSE will define “highly qualified,” but when it comes to DCPS teachers, IMPACT scores are likely to be a factor.

More money isn’t enough

The simplest approach would be to offer teachers with high IMPACT scores more money to teach in high-poverty schools. But DCPS already does that. Highly effective teachers in those schools can get bonuses of up to $20,000, as compared to $2,000 in other schools, and their base pay is higher as well. Obviously, it hasn’t worked.

One reason for that may be that teachers generally care more about their working conditions than about how much money they make, according to a report from The Education Trust. And the report says students aren’t the most important factor. Instead, good teachers want a school with a strong leader and a collaborative environment. That’s especially true for those in high-poverty schools.

Another problem with DCPS’s approach is that to get the additional compensation, teachers have to continue to get a highly effective rating after they switch from an affluent school to a high-poverty one. And some teachers say it’s a lot harder to get that rating at a high-poverty school.

That not only explains why teachers who are highly rated at affluent schools are reluctant to move to high-poverty ones. It also may explain why there are so many fewer highly rated teachers at high-poverty schools in the first place.

For one thing, part of the IMPACT score for some teachers depends on how much the teacher has increased her students’ test scores in a given year. But the tests are geared to a student’s grade level, and many students at high-needs schools are several grade levels behind.

If a 10th-grader comes into a teacher’s class at a 5th-grade level and the teacher succeeds in bringing the student’s skills up to a 6th- or 7th-grade level, the test isn’t geared to capture that improvement. Neither the teacher nor the school gets credit. And there’s virtually no way to bring a student up five grade levels in a single year.

“No teacher wants to go into a school where you can only be told you’ve failed,” says David Tansey, a math teacher at Dunbar High School.

Teachers at high-needs schools, where behavior problems are more common, are also more likely to get low ratings on the classroom observation component of their IMPACT scores. Tansey recalls getting a low rating from one observer because a student cursed in class.

Tansey pointed out that the student had corrected himself, something that reflected Tansey’s efforts and was a vast improvement over the student’s behavior at the beginning of the year. But, he says, that made no difference to the observer.

Teachers need to motivate disengaged students

More fundamentally, Tansey says, the IMPACT approach assumes that students are intrinsically motivated to learn. That may be the case at more affluent schools, or at selective DCPS or charter schools where students or their parents have made an affirmative decision to attend. It’s usually not the case at a neighborhood high-poverty school like Dunbar.

Tansey’s students often have traumatic home lives and don’t see the point of school. So he tries to explain how any mathematical concept he teaches will be useful in the real world. One project has kids planning out their lives, from choosing a college and a job to figuring out what kind of house they can afford. The kids love it, he says, and along the way they’re using math to make calculations.

But projects like that won’t do anything for Tansey’s IMPACT score. “I do a project like that despite the requirements, not because of them,” he says. Rather than having to hide techniques that work with disengaged students, he argues, teachers at high-poverty schools should be encouraged to share them with colleagues.

Tansey actually is rated highly effective—one of five teachers with that rating at Dunbar, he says. And he concedes that teachers who are rated highly effective are “genuinely effective.” But he says there are also many genuinely effective teachers in high-needs schools who don’t get the “highly effective” rating.

And, he says, there are “highly effective” teachers at affluent schools who would no longer get that rating at a high-needs school. It takes a different set of skills.

All this suggests that it doesn’t make sense to simply try to lure highly rated teachers from Ward 3 to Ward 7 or 8. A better approach might be to recruit new teachers who have been specifically trained to deal with high-poverty populations, preferably through a residency program that includes a one-year apprenticeship in a high-needs school. (Disclosure: I’m chair of the DC Leadership Council of one such program, Urban Teacher Center.)

But even that won’t be enough to ensure they stay. If DC wants to retain excellent teachers in its most challenging schools, administrators will need to make them feel their efforts are valued as much as those of their counterparts at more affluent schools.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.