District of Columbia Fires 5 Percent of Teachers for Poor Performance

Published July 25, 2011

Five percent of the District of Columbia’s teaching staff received pink slips in mid-July after a newly implemented assessment program classified them as poor performers. Most city school districts fire fewer than 1 percent of their teachers in a given year though such systems, like DC , routinely line the bottom of national test score rankings.   

The program, called IMPACT and introduced in 2009 by former Chancellor Michelle Rhee, outlines expectations for employees and holds them accountable via ongoing feedback in five scheduled sessions throughout the school year.

One expectation is that students will score well on required achievement tests; another, that teachers manage classroom time wisely and tailor instruction to meet varying student needs.

Leading the Way
The District of Columbia stands at the forefront of the nation with this type of evaluation system, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute. 

“We do see other districts now trying to do this,” he said. “How effective DC is will have an effect on what the rest of the nation does.” 

Roughly 6,500 of the District’s employees are evaluated by the IMPACT method, which assesses employees with  four ratings: highly effective, effective, minimally effective, or ineffective. Approximately 4,100 of these city workers are members of the Washington Teachers’ Union, and of that number some 3,400 are teachers, according to DC Public Schools. 

The latest assessment resulted in the July 15 firing of 413 union employees for poor work performance, 206 of whom were teachers.

Classroom Visits Prominent
“Washington’s teacher union fought [IMPACT] very aggressively during development,” Hess said. “But they had limited influence because in DC teacher assessments do fall under the domain of the chancellor.” 

The program includes an extensive support system. DC teachers have more than 150 mentors and 45 master educators available to give assistance, plus a library of videos and books with the latest best practices information for teaching the various subjects. 

But the core facet of IMPACT is “the structured observation of teachers five times a year, where someone actually comes and sits in the classroom,” Hess said. Many evaluation systems use only one classroom visit, and teachers know visit dates beforehand. “IMPACT is a well-designed system. They spent a couple years forming it.” 

Not everyone sees these firings as being the direct result of IMPACT’s findings.

“This is a very small percentage of the workforce,” said Susan Burns, program manager for the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University. “I would guess that there is generally that much turnover every year in a school system that large. I would also guess that not all were dismissed for IMPACT issues.” 

Turnover and Benefitting Students
The District of Columbia Public Schools’ website, however, does credit IMPACT with weeding out 113 who received an ‘ineffective’ rating, 175 who rated “minimally effective” for the second consecutive year, and 104 who failed to meet licensing requirements. Hess agrees some of the 200-plus teachers who were fired may have been let go for reasons other than performance. But in the end, he said, students benefit. 

“Obviously, there are imperfections [in any program]. I’m confident that probably some of those fired weren’t awful,” he said. “But DC is hugely focused on helping students and driving proficiency rates, and removing those teachers will have a long-term effect. 

“If you systematically remove some of the weakest teachers every year,” Hess continued, “and if you do that carefully and well, it’s going to have an impact.” 

As IMPACT aims to root out subpar performers, it also recognizes and rewards stellar achievers. Teachers rated “highly effective” are eligible for $25,000 bonuses, and those awarded this rating for two years or more in a row are eligible for salary raises of up to $20,000.

In the most recent assessment, 663 teachers earned ratings of “highly effective,” and another 2,765 were designated “effective.”