High-Stakes Teacher Evaluations Benefit DC Students, Study Shows

Published October 12, 2017

“A closer look at one high-stakes evaluation system … shows the positive consequences such systems can have for students,” authors Thomas S. Dee and James Wyckoff write in the Fall 2017 issue of EducationNext.

“Since 2012, we have been studying IMPACT, a seminal effort by DCPS to link teacher retention and pay to their performance,” Dee and Wyckoff write. “Under IMPACT, the district sets detailed standards for high-quality instruction, conducts multiple observations, assesses individual performance based on evidence of student progress, and retains and rewards teachers based on annual ratings. Looking across our analyses, we see that under IMPACT, DCPS has dramatically improved the quality of teaching in its schools—likely contributing to its status as the fastest-improving large urban school system in the United States as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.”

Political Fallout, Student Success

Michelle Rhee, DCPS’ chancellor at the time the evaluation policy was implemented, and the mayor who appointed her lost their positions as a result of controversy over the change. “But IMPACT outlasted them both, to the benefit of students,” the authors write.

“DCPS dismissed the majority of very low performing teachers and replaced them with teachers whose students did better, especially in math,” the report states. “Other low-performing teachers were 50 percent more likely to leave their jobs voluntarily, and those who opted to stay improved significantly, on average, the following year. High-performing teachers improved their performance as well, especially those within reach of the significant financial incentive created by the system.”

The authors conclude, “The DCPS story shows that it may be politically challenging to adopt high-stakes evaluation systems, but it is not impossible. And it shows that well-designed and carefully implemented teacher evaluations can serve as an important district improvement strategy—so long as states and districts are also willing to make tough, performance-based decisions about teacher retention, development, and pay.”

Setting Expectations

Wyckoff, the Curry Memorial Professor of Education and Policy and director of the EdPolicyWorks program at the University of Virginia, says the DCPS system gives teachers clear expectations.

 “I believe the DCPS teacher evaluation reforms have succeeded because they were well designed, very well implemented, and DCPS policymakers were willing to modify policies as they received feedback from teachers,” Wyckoff said. “Teacher evaluations in DCPS differentiate among teachers in ways that few other districts do, so teachers better understand the skills they need to improve.”

‘Meaningful Gains for Students’

Arnold Shober, an associate professor of government at Lawrence University, says the high-stakes system makes room for quality educators.

“I think it’s pretty clear that DCPS’ ‘fast fire’ policy has boosted the quality of applicants to the system,” Shober said. “In a profession that features substantial turnover anyway, this translates into meaningful gains for students. States’ teacher evaluation laws assume that evaluation can turn weak teachers into good ones. This is a mistake. Robust evaluation works when it clears the way for new teachers with better prospects. DCPS’ system does. Districts can’t make a good teacher; they have to find them.”

‘Competition Works’

Shober says the amount of school choice in DC makes it conducive to such reforms.

“DCPS is one of the few districts in America to feature something like a real competitive market, with an independent charter school sector and a genuine voucher program,” Shober said.

Larry Sand, president of California Teachers Empowerment Network, says school choice causes government schools to improve.

“Study after study has shown that where private school choice has been introduced, public schools have improved,” Sand said. “Competition works. Most recently, a study from New York City found that being closer to a charter school led to small increases in math and reading scores, boosts in school safety, and fewer students being held back a grade in the traditional public school. The test score gains increased even more in traditional public schools that are co-located with a charter.”

‘May Not Travel Well’

Whether DCPS’ program is replicable needs further review, Sand says.

“Not all education programs work with all teachers and students,” Sand said. “While DC’s evaluation program has certainly worked well for teachers and students there, that same program may not travel well. One would have to look at DC and compare it to another program to see the differences, and take it from there.”

Shober says IMPACT succeeded because of special circumstances.

“DCPS has had to live with substantial teacher churn and significantly more hiring than virtually any other school district,” Shober said. “These are real costs, both financial and political, and it is unclear that other districts could maintain such a strong focus. It’s important to remember that IMPACT was authorized by Congress, and the U.S. Congress is an absentee landlord in zero political danger from DC.”

Unions will continue to fight high-stakes evaluations elsewhere, Sand says.

“As soon as it is acknowledged that some teachers are better than others, then you might have to pay better teachers more, and that in turn blows up the traditional step-and-column way of paying teachers, a union must,” Sand said. “Also, dismissing teachers once they have achieved permanent status, no matter how incompetent, flies in the face of traditional union policy. Teacher quality, while of paramount importance to students, is of little interest to the unions.”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.