As their colleagues received accolades at an annual awards gala, a group of DCPS teachers, with colorful signs in tow, picketed in the freezing cold along a major street in resistance to an evaluation system they say has been used to punish rogue educators.
The protest, organized by the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU), took place Thursday, Feb. 7 in front of the parking garage of the District Wharf as teachers, students, and other affiliates of D.C. Public Schools attended the Standing Ovation Awards, hosted by the D.C. Public Education Fund at The Anthem in Southwest.
“Evaluations are being conducted by principals and vice principals,” said a DCPS teacher of 18 years who is on the verge of early retirement. “Some of them have grudges against teachers, and teachers have seen their scores plummet.”
The educator, who requested anonymity out of concern for retaliation, said her experiences with IMPACT, the polarizing effectiveness management system that D.C. Public Schools implemented in 2009, compelled her decision to leave the teaching profession.
Two years ago, after she vocally criticized leadership decisions during a staff meeting, her relationship with her principal, and ultimately her IMPACT score, significantly changed. “I was at 398 (out of 400) and my principal didn’t like some of the things I said in our staff meetings,” the teacher said.
The veteran teacher said her principal really turned up the heat after WTU officials reprimanded school leadership for alleged unscrupulous on-campus activity. Other instances of abuse of power she detailed during last Thursday’s protest included warnings against speaking with parents, and days-long stints in a small room, what she called a “teacher jail,” at John Philip Sousa Middle School in Northeast with other teachers who railed against administrators.
“We let the union know some of the things [my principal] said and they slapped her hand,” she added. “She paid us back. We just want DCPS employees to know that the evaluation system doesn’t work the way it was set up.”
IMPACT provides feedback for teachers in the areas of instructional practice and culture, student achievement, and collaboration. Through IMPACT-plus, DCPS’ performance-based compensation system, teachers rated as “highly effective” receive annual bonuses of up to $25,000. DCPS leaders also reward “highly effective” teachers during the Standing Ovation Awards, an annual event that’s been in existence since 2009.
Teachers could earn up to an extra $3.7 million throughout their DCPS career, depending on their IMPACT score.
While some DCPS officials have credited IMPACT, launched during the Michelle Rhee era, with increasing teacher quality and making D.C. Public Schools “the fastest-improving school district in the country,” critics say the teacher turnover rate of 20 percent tells a different story of burnt-out educators leaving for greener pastures — or just quitting the profession altogether.
Even Jason Kamras, creator of IMPACT and a central figure in the Rhee administration, couldn’t escape the stigma when he took over the Richmond Public School system in late 2017. In the months after he entered that role, IMPACT had been implicated in a key factor in teachers passing along nearly one out of three D.C. Public Schools graduates who didn’t meet the academic requirements during the 2016-2017 academic year.
Opponents of IMPACT say pressure to show student improvement manifested out of a contract, negotiated by Rhee and union leaders, that abolished tenure in exchange for higher salaries. For years, WTU leaders have attempted, with little success, to replace IMPACT with a less stringent teacher evaluation system that considers factors beyond students’ performance and doesn’t place an instructor’s fate solely in the hands of an administrator.
“The rating system should be one designed in collaboration with teachers,” said WTU President Elizabeth Davis, a participant in last Thursday’s protest, as she expressed hope that acting Chancellor Lewis Ferebee, if approved by the D.C. Council, would tackle this issue with teachers.
One day prior, she testified at a public roundtable at Cardozo Education Campus in Northwest that the D.C. Council Committee on Education hosted in advance of Ferebee’s February 12 confirmation hearing.
On Friday, Ferebee, just wrapping up a visit of Ballou Senior High School in Southeast, told The Informer that he’s committed to studying ways of improving D.C Public Schools’ teacher evaluation system.
This response differed from what Davis described as former Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s “wholesale rejection” of WTU’s proposals.
“We kept all those proposals,” said Davis, a former Jefferson Middle School teacher. “When Kaya Henderson left, Antwan Wilson said he wanted to see them. We need peer reviews, but teachers also need someone to model lessons. If I didn’t have a mentor during my first year as a teacher, I would have quit.”
Other DCPS employees, like a sixth-year teacher and union leader who protested alongside Davis and others, said they haven’t been able to execute much of what they earned about the profession.
For this teacher, who also requested anonymity, the focus on standardized testing doesn’t leave much room for arts integration, an instructional strategy that piqued his interest when a former supervisor endorsed it.
“I spent the last class teaching students how to get the best answer to the test,” the teacher added, stressing that his recent WTU activities garnered him negative attention, despite his high IMPACT scores.
“I’ve tried to challenge [the status quo],” he said. “I’ve never taken a bonus. I’ve never gone to this event. Three years ago, I dropped from ‘highly effective’ to ‘developing’ when I joined the union. The work I’m doing is getting recognized, and my principal wants me to quit and get out of her hair.”