Today Education Sector releases a paper on IMPACT, the District of Columbia’s controversial teacher evaluation system that rates teachers primarily on classroom observations and student test scores. As one of the first in the nation to link teacher performance, pay, and job security to such measures, IMPACT is the most polarizing of the bold reforms initiated by ex-schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. In the two years since this high-stakes report card was launched, it has led to the firing of scores of educators, put hundreds more on notice, and left the rest either encouraged and re-energized, or frustrated and scared.
IMPACT sets clear expectations for effective teaching, from probing students’ understanding to coming to work on time. Many teachers in the district welcome these standards and are motivated by salary bonuses of up to $25,000 to prove they can meet them. Others complain of being judged on elements of a craft that they insist can’t be measured. Describing the system, they use words like “humiliating,” “infantilizing,” and “punitive.” But whether they are critics talking bitterly of being “impacted” or boosters talking about “getting great feedback on my ‘Teach One,’ ” D.C. teachers are speaking a new language—that of the rubric by which they are measured. And that is an unmistakable sign that IMPACT is changing the way many teachers teach.
As school districts around the country work to devise their own evaluation systems that include student test scores (so-called value-added measures) and classroom observations, they are closely watching how this high-profile prototype is playing out in the nation’s capital. As they do, they will find lessons in how codifying best practices can be used to objectively assess teachers and help them improve, and how greater accountability can considerably enhance the public’s faith in a school system. But they will also see how difficult it is to calibrate such a powerful tool so that it works in practice as intended.