DCPS and the WTU: A Negotiation Showdown or an Opportunity to Repair?

During the coming negotiation rounds between DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson and the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) President, Elizabeth “Liz” Davis, the following issues need further elaboration: How has IMPACT 2.0 faired in the 40 lowest performing schools? What is the teacher turnover rate within these schools, especially for Group 1 teachers? Is the current classroom observations’ model helping to develop teachers? What are the shortcomings of IMPACT 2.0? What “software upgrades” are essential for encouraging “out-of-the-box” teacher risks and innovation? How can the system prevent teachers from “burning out” or leaving the District, altogether? If these questions, and more, are “on the negotiation table,” then, perhaps, IMPACT version 3.0 will be worth the wait.

Background

During the Fall of 2008, DCPS created the “Effective Schools Framework,” an overarching education reform policy designed to ensure quality education within all DCPS schools. This “framework” consists of six core elements: Teaching and Learning; Leadership; Job-Embedded Professional Development; Resources; Safe and Effective Learning Environment; and, Family and Community Engagement. According to DCPS, the Teaching and Learning Element, which focuses on strong classroom instruction, is the primary focus of the overall framework. Moreover, the Teaching and Learning Element has three main purposes: provide clear expectations for teachers; align professional development and support; and, support a fair and transparent educator assessment system (IMPACT).

IMPACT: The Teacher Evaluation System

The IMPACT Teacher Evaluation System was first introduced in 2009. This evaluation system seeks to provide DCPS educators with the tools necessary for becoming more “effective.” Its three main purposes are: Clarifying Expectations; Providing Feedback and Support; and, Retaining Great People. At the center of the IMPACT Teacher Evaluation System are the “Guidebooks,” which consists of twenty differentiated evaluation rubrics based on an employee’s specific job title, or “group.” For example, mathematics and English Language Arts (ELA) teachers belong to “Group 1,” which is the only group subject to test-based accountability, vis-à-vis a student’s performance on the annual high-stakes test (DC CAS). General education teachers, such as science and electives teachers, belong to “Group 2.” Special Education teachers belong to “Group 3” teachers, which is further differentiated for Autism programs (Group 3a) and Early Childhood Education (Group 3b).

Concerns and Considerations

Although differentiating between teachers, i.e. “groups,” sounds ideal, it actually creates more wedges. If the aim is to hold all teachers accountable for student learning, then we must reassess the “grouping” effect from a ground-level perspective. In my experience, both as a Group 1 and Group 2 teacher, I find the Group 1 rubric more rigid than Groups 2 and 3. Why is this the case? This differentiated accountability is wholly unfair to Group 1 teachers, especially within the 40 lowest performing schools. If our collective aim is to educate every child, then we need to implement the same accountability standards across the board.

Another challenge with differentiated teacher accountability is its tendency to stifle interdisciplinary collaboration. Due to DC CAS related pressures, Group 1 teachers often collaborate in isolation, and understandably so. Of all IMPACT “teacher-groups,” Group 1 teachers definitely carry the most burdens. Again, why is this the case? Is differentiated teacher accountability a best practice? Does it produce a positive effect throughout a low-performing public school? Does it create higher rates of teacher turnover or movers, particularly Group 1 teachers within these targeted public schools? If so, then this issue needs serious consideration, pronto!

The Teaching and Learning Framework: Classroom Observations

Another critical aspect to the Teaching and Learning Element is classroom, or teacher, observations. According to DCPS’ website, “three observations are conducted by teachers’ administrators and two are conducted by independent, expert practitioners called “master educators.” DCPS administrators and master educators use this scoring rubric during an official classroom. Although “teacher-groups” are differentiated (i.e. Group 1, 2, 3, etc.), the classroom observation rubric is not differentiated. In other words, it’s a one-size-fits-all scoring checklist.

Concerns and Considerations

When it comes to the Teaching and Learning Framework (TLF), my fundamental question is this: what’s the objective of classroom observations? If the intent is to support and develop teachers, then conducting four-to-five random observations isn’t an effective model. If the aim is simply to generate a numerical average based on a rubric, then the current system is ideal. Again, what’s the overarching objective? Is the District in the business of professionally developing its teachers, or professional chasing its vanity metrics?

The most damaging aspect of performing random classroom observations is its tendency to disincentives risk-taking. If teachers are walking around the school building in perpetual fear, then their performance will, undoubtedly, suffer. Classroom observations are critical to ensuring best practices, and providing meaningful, professional support. The current model, however, is neither “effective” nor “highly effective.” An issue I’ve expressed in more detail here. This development tools must encourage risk-taking, and incentives out-of-the-box innovation. The last thing teachers’ need is an evaluation system that stifles creativity, and sets a culture of “fear.”

Value Added Model (VAM)

A Value Added Model (VAM), which originated as a means to assess agricultural effectiveness, is a measure used to evaluate a DCPS Group 1 teacher’s performance vis-à-vis the DC CAS. According to DCPS, “Individual Value-Added (IVA) applies to English Language Arts teachers in (4th through 10thgrade), and to Math teachers (4th through 8th grade). Thus, Group 1 (ELA and Math) teachers, alone, fall prey to this evaluative component because “they are the only ones for which we have student DC CAS scores from both the prior and current year, a requirement for value-added.” For an explanation on how DCPS uses a VAM approach to assessing Group 1 teachers, please read this report. If you want a brief explanation on why the VAM approach is highly unreliable, please view this video.

Concerns and Considerations

Without question, VAMs have a definite design flaw. A teacher’s classroom student composition, vis-à-vis prior student achievement levels, can make or break his or her final IVA (Individual Added Value) score. VAM proponents often claim that this model captures student growth. Although VAMs do capture a student’s growth or decline on a standardized test, it fails to consider actual growth, which isn’t necessarily measured by grade level proficiency cut-off scores. An issue I’ve explained in more detail here and here. If a student, who’s multiple grade levels behind, randomly selects answers, then how’s this an adequate representation of a teacher’s ability to instruct? This isn’t a trick question. The simple answer: It’s not!

As a result, VAMs have a tendency to punish certain teachers and schools, in large part, because low-performing schools consist primarily of “low-performing” students. Thus, DCPS Group 1 teachers – ELA and Math – are extremely vulnerable to low IMPACT evaluation ratings, vis-à-vis their IVA score. So, is IMPACT 2.0 counterproductive? Well, if the aim is to recruit quality teachers into the most vulnerable, low performing schools, then, yes, this version falls well short of its intended aims.

According to this report, almost one-third (32.4%) of DCPS teachers, who work in high-poverty public schools, left the District. In contrast, only 13.2% of teachers who work in low-poverty DC public school, and 9.2% of teachers who work in a medium-poverty school left the District. 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 teacher evaluation system that encourages teachers to sign up for the most challenging assignments, and not avoid them.

Will DCPS Upgrade to IMPACT 3.0?

So, is IMPACT 3.0 up for negotiation? Let’s definitely hope so. Although IMPACT version 2.0 replaced the first product, it still needs reassessment and revision. In my professional opinion, the current version favors low-poverty public schools and teachers, which runs contrary to the District’s stated “40/40 Goal.” Therefore, it’s important to place all issues “on the negotiation table.” As a DCPS teacher, working within a high-poverty public middle school in Ward 8, I genuinely want an evaluation system that is fair and reasonable. DCPS and the WTU must guard against all unintended consequences. If DCPS and the WTU genuinely seek to improve the lowest-performing schools, then they must address the high turn over rates in high-poverty schools, as well as the unspoken desire for teachers to avoid teaching in high-needs schools due to IMPACT, especially under the Group 1 category. If the aim is to recruit and develop quality teachers for the most vulnerable schools, then DCPS and the WTU must have a system that encourages teachers to teach in challenging environments, and not avoid them. Or, worse still. We simply cannot afford a perpetual revolving door in our most vulnerable public schools. Hence, I truly hope ALL issues are “on the negotiation table.”

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