Thoughts on the IMPACT System in DCPS

There’s been a lot of press coverage of the IMPACT evaluation program in D.C. Public Schools recently. I worked in the central office when that program was launched, and though I won’t provide further details about what I was doing, I assure you – I know a lot about IMPACT.

It’s a controversial system from pretty much anyone’s perspective, including mine. On the one hand, I taught in a struggling school that had more than its fair share of mediocre and ineffective teachers, and I do believe that teachers can make a significant difference in the academic and life outcomes of students regardless of other factors, so I strongly support efforts like IMPACT to give teachers thorough evaluations that can result in their removal from the classroom if it’s clear that they don’t have what it takes. On the other hand, as someone who only taught for two years and came straight out of college (without majoring in education), I know just how hard it is to teach in struggling schools (which make up the majority of the DCPS system) and can definitely sympathize with teachers who feel frustrated or intimidated by the evaluation process.

I also got to hear a fair amount of feedback from principals, and the perspective shared in Jay Mathews’ most recent blog post sounds familiar to me. The anonymous principal featured in the piece doesn’t object to IMPACT in terms of its goals but in terms of its implementation and how that affects her ability to run the school. Instead of conducting frequent, brief pop-ins to classrooms that made her more visible to students and better attuned to the daily goings-on of the school, she now has to schedule her time around the three rounds of 30-minute observations she is required to complete for each of her teachers over the course of the year. Principals last year had a hard time adjusting to this requirement, and I can understand this principal’s complaint. I wish that my principal had popped in more frequently; I think he visited my classroom twice during each year that I taught, and since it was clear that I more or less had things under control, he didn’t bother to keep coming back. (I say that without confidence that he then used that time to observe more obviously struggling teachers more frequently.)

It’s truly tough to find a happy medium between the frequency and depth of observations and feedback. The architects of IMPACT (which, it should be noted, included DCPS teachers) opted for a system that included fewer observations but of significant length in order to provide teachers with a more in-depth picture of their instruction, strengths, and areas for growth. Last year’s evaluations lasted exactly 30 minutes; this year they are a minimum of 30 minutes but can be longer depending on the discretion of the principals and Master Educators. Part of the problem is that secondary schools don’t have the same class lengths across the city – some have block scheduling with 90-minute classes; others have regular schedules with 45-minute classes. 30 minutes in a 45-minute class can give you a more complete picture than 30 minutes in a 90-minute class (especially given that the observations begin at the start of the lesson). It would be ideal if evaluators could stay with teachers for an entire class period in order to see the complete lesson, but there simply isn’t the time or manpower to do that – principals struggle to complete their three rounds of observations even with the help of their assistant principals, who can also complete those evaluations.

Five observations of 30 minutes only add up to two and a half hours of formal observations over the course of an entire academic year – a wholly insignificant amount of time in the grand scheme of things. That being said, it’s certainly a step up from the previous system in DCPS and from those used in most school systems (including Prince George’s County, where I taught). The IMPACT rubric covers the gamut of qualities that add up to good instruction, and teachers receive detailed reports after each evaluation that explain their score for each standard and suggest steps for improvement. While the quality of these reports varies (principals tend to make their reports briefer than those of the Master Educators simply because they have to do more of them), they do provide more insight into a teacher’s strengths and weaknesses than an evaluation in a typical school system.

One of the other main complaints about IMPACT is that it disadvantages teachers who are teaching in the worst schools. When the Washington Post reported, to no one’s surprise, that there were more “highly effective” teachers in Northwest Washington than in Southeast, teachers cried out that it’s just easier to do well if you teach in a better school. This is, to a certain extent, true – the many things that go on outside of classrooms that can contribute to students’ behavior and success in school generally make teaching easier in Northwest than in Southeast. Kids who are hungry because they don’t have enough to eat at home are more likely to be cranky and make for more challenging classroom management, to give just one example.

The part of me that had to struggle against all of these challenges definitely understands the complaints of teachers who think that there ought to be some sort of differentiation in the rubric depending on where someone teaches. I sympathize, but ultimately I don’t agree. Regardless of outside circumstances, it is a teacher’s job to educate students – to cover the same material and see maximum mastery of objectives in any grade in any school in any neighborhood in any city. Making excuses doesn’t ultimately benefit the teachers or the students in our most struggling schools. True: it may not be a high school English teacher’s fault that his or her students don’t enter the year on grade level (or anywhere near it), but it is that teacher’s job to think critically and creatively to figure out how to maximize instruction to move students forward as much as possible. In the March 17th article by Stephanie McCrummen, a Southeast elementary school teacher is quoted as saying that “[the lesson] will deviate because there is always some other rock I have to overturn” in order to teach an objective. I get that; I experienced it myself. BUT a truly effective teacher – and I’m saying effective, not even highly effective – will be able to anticipate those “rocks” and construct the lesson so as to preempt them. This isn’t something that inexperienced teachers will immediately know how to do, and it’s clearly not something that experienced teachers can automatically do, either. That is why there is, theoretically, this process of feedback that allows teachers to ask questions and access resources (verbal or written) that will help them to anticipate and overcome the more numerous challenges that come with teaching in struggling schools.

What IMPACT needs is more people to evaluate and give feedback – but again, this is a problem of manpower. Hundreds of people applied to be Master Educators over the last two years; fewer than 50 were hired. Some of that is a function of available money (they bring home hefty salaries), but it’s mostly a problem of quality and quantity – there simply aren’t enough people who are simultaneously a) willing to leave the classroom, b) able to observe and offer feedback, c) write thorough, helpful reports, d) deliver feedback diplomatically and motivationally, and, most importantly, e) have the experience and proven success of teaching underprivileged students necessary to help other educators reach the same levels of success. DCPS recruits aggressively across the United States to find Master Educators, and there just aren’t enough people right now to provide for a system of evaluations that would include more observations and more feedback.

Jason Kamras, the Chief of Human Capital at DCPS who oversees IMPACT, is a good guy and wants to create a system that reflects the input of teachers – that’s why his team held meetings with teachers across the city in order to develop IMPACT in 2009 and refine it in 2010. My advice to any of you who are teaching in DCPS is to get in touch with him or his deputies and share your feedback. Just understand that there are limitations on what, realistically, can be done to make everyone happy. Don’t ask for a different rubric for teachers in wards 7 and 8 – you won’t get it. The more standardized things are, the more likely they are to be fair – even though standardization can cause a lot of problems (see my post about foreign language teachers under IMPACT). Making exceptions creates a slippery slope that will ultimately lead to lower expectations, and that’s not what teachers OR students need.

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About educationescritora

I'm a former high school Spanish teacher and central office employee. I believe that excellent public education will be a catalyst for positive social change in our country and that we cannot wait any longer to deliver the teachers, knowledge, and skills that our students need.
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One Response to Thoughts on the IMPACT System in DCPS

  1. Jack Arse says:

    Hi, its a thoughtful post and I respect the tone. I would really disagree with many of the conclusions. Not all teachers need IMPACT style evaluations. The accountability movement has gone too far. I am not gaining anything from IMPACT, its only serving to make me think more about leaving this system. Jason Kamras might be a “good guy”, but he has no business imposing his ideas on every other teacher in DCPS. My students do really well and it has nothing to do with TLF or any other of these central office concoctions. We should have more options in how we are evaluated, not a one-size-fits-all piece of crap like IMPACT.

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