WASHINGTON (AP) — Tough new teacher evaluations led to a strike this month in Chicago, but in the District of Columbia, such evaluations are "business as usual."
Comprehensive teacher evaluations that take into account student performance are a central part of President Barack Obama's education policy and of the national school reform movement. They also were a major point of contention in the seven-day long Chicago teachers' strike, which ended Tuesday.
In Washington, evaluations based in part on standardized tests have been used since 2009 to rate teacher performance, putting the city at the forefront of major school systems that are working to reform their personnel practices. All told, nearly 400 teachers have lost their jobs since the new evaluations were put into place.
The latest round of firings occurred last month, when 98 Washington teachers lost their jobs after a rigorous evaluation system found they weren't up to snuff. The firings attracted no national media attention and little outcry locally. In fact, the president of the teachers union praised the school system for softening some of the evaluation criteria.
"It was a goal of mine to get to a point where this is business as usual," schools chancellor Kaya Henderson said. "Any well-functioning organization fires people for performance, and that's going to be a regular occurrence. Every high-performing organization also recognizes and rewards the highest achievers, and that's now a regular occurrence."
Henderson and other reform advocates say the new emphasis on teacher performance has markedly improved the quality of teaching in the district. But critics say the constant turnover has created an atmosphere of instability that drives away good teachers and doesn't help students. They point to federal testing data that shows at best modest improvement in recent years.
"We have gone from a system where almost no one was terminated, no matter how bad, to the other extreme, where good teachers as well as bad are terminated," said Mary Levy, an attorney and a longtime analyst of city education policy. "The latter is probably more damaging due to the stress and demoralization it causes."
Washington was uniquely positioned to lead the charge on firing low-performing teachers. An act of Congress in the 1990s permitted the district to tie evaluations to test scores, but it wasn't until then-Mayor Adrian Fenty took control of the school system in 2007 and installed Michelle Rhee as chancellor that school officials began to exercise that option.
Rhee fired nearly 1,000 teachers in her 3 years as chancellor, and some of the firings provoked legal challenges. She was known for inflammatory statements, including a magazine interview in which she said she laid off teachers "who had hit children, who had had sex with children." She later clarified that two of the fired teachers had been accused of sexual misconduct.
The 2010 mayoral election was seen by many as a referendum on Rhee, and Vincent Gray defeated Fenty in the Democratic primary with strong backing from the teachers union. Rhee stepped down shortly thereafter.
Gray pledged to continue Rhee's reforms with a more conciliatory, inclusive approach, and he appointed her deputy, Henderson, as chancellor.
Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said the discussions about teacher quality have been more respectful under Gray and Henderson. That's one reason he's working to change the system from within, rather than pushing to scrap it entirely. Starting this school year, test scores only account for 35 percent of a teacher's evaluation, down from 50 percent under the previous model.
But ask Saunders whether the teacher evaluations have improved schools, and his answer is unequivocal: "No."
"Could we have achieved the meager improvements that we've achieved with less stress and less money on the taxpayers? I argue that the answer is yes," Saunders said.
The district still lags far behind the national average on the "Nation's Report Card" from the Education Department. Between 2009 and 2011, with the new teacher standards in place, average fourth-grade reading scores were down slightly and eighth-grade reading scores were unchanged. Math scores were up slightly in both grades.
Reform advocates point to consistent improvement on the district's own standardized tests since the mayoral takeover in 2007.
"The district has historically had a low standard for instruction," said Tim Daly of the New Teacher Project, a reform advocacy group founded by Rhee before coming to Washington and where Henderson also worked. "I think they have many years ahead of them of steady improvement. ... We won't really know how far they've come until they hit the 5- and 10-year mark" of the evaluation program.
Following the district's lead, Houston and New Haven, Conn., have also started firing teachers because of poor evaluations, and Memphis teachers chose an evaluation system modeled after the district's. At least half the states are incorporating test scores into teacher evaluations. But no other school system has fired so many poorly rated teachers.
Rhee, who now heads a nonprofit advocacy group, said it's not surprising the practice has gained acceptance.
"I think everyone agrees — including educators — that a teacher failing to perform well, even when given extra time and support, really should be working in another profession," the former chancellor said in a statement.
In addition to firing teachers who perform poorly, the district has moved aggressively to reward the best teachers. Those who get top evaluations can get pay raises more quickly and receive up to $25,000 a year in bonuses. That means a teacher can earn a $131,000 annual salary, one of the highest in the nation for a public school instructor, after nine years on the job.
The system is also placing more emphasis on professional development. The union is training teachers on how to improve their evaluation scores, and Saunders said teachers, by and large, have learned how to adapt to the new criteria.
But many teachers aren't sticking around long enough to enjoy the higher salaries. The district has one of the highest teacher turnover rates in the nation. Half of new teachers leave the system after 2 years, according to Levy's analysis, compared with about one-third nationwide. Levy recently began examining individual schools and found two-year turnover rates as high as 94 percent at one elementary school and 66 percent at a high school.
Even some teachers who score highly under the system are wary of it. Diane Terrell, 62, a pre-kindergarten teacher who's been in the system for nearly 40 years, has been rated "highly effective" each year the system has been in place, but has turned down the bonus money because it would force her to give up certain rights if she were laid off.
"I should not have to give up anything in order to receive something if I have proved myself highly qualified. Why should I?" Terrell said. Although she's fared well under the evaluation system, she doesn't measure herself by it, saying it provokes "fear and frustration" in her and her colleagues.
"I feel that I'm a quality teacher," she said, "because I'm here to serve the children."
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