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Positive Impact

Michelle Rhee’s teacher evaluation system has shown itself to be effective in D.C. public schools and has left the teachers unions on the sidelines…for now.

Back in 2010, the Washington, D.C. public school system (DCPS) introduced IMPACT, an evaluation system whose goal was not only to identify and retain good teachers, but pay them bonuses. At the same time, it aimed to enable the school district to get rid of its poor performers. (Just like employers do in the rest of the working world!) Michelle Rhee, who implemented the plan, began her reign as chancellor of DCPS in 2007 and left the district in October, 2010 just as the new system kicked in. (Rhee saw the handwriting on the wall when Mayor Adrian Fenty, who had hired her, lost a primary bid to run again.)

To state the obvious, the Washington Teachers Union was outraged by the plan. In fact, it was blasted by organized labor from coast to coast. Every teacher union leader who could get their hands on a microphone or the ear of a willing education reporter spewed vitriol at Rhee. In brief, they said the program, which included a component that rated teachers by how well students do on standardized tests, was unfair because tests “evaluate students and not teachers.” Translation: union bosses don’t want teachers held at all accountable if their kids don’t learn. The unions see teachers as interchangeable widgets, all of whom are competent… to one degree or another. To differentiate between effective and ineffective teachers by what their students actually learn would necessitate doing away with industrial-style work rules like tenure and seniority – perennial union-mandated protections.

The National Education Association and other unions prefer to subject teachers to “high-quality professional development.” These classes, intended to teach teachers how to teach, are made necessary because of the lousy job that many of our schools of education do. What the unions never get around to mentioning is what to do with teachers who can’t cut it even after they have had any number of “high-quality professional development” classes.

When it comes to teacher accountability, the California Teachers Association is Astaire-like at the evasion dance. Former CTA president Dean Vogel is on record saying that the union “will continue to fight to ensure we have qualified and experienced teachers in the classrooms….” (H/T Richard Rider)

Okay, “qualified” and “experienced” sound good, right? But there’s much more to teaching than having the proper certification and being on the job for x years. Is the teacher effective? Does the teacher get results? Are the students learning? Mr. Vogel becomes a wallflower when this music is played.

Well, lo and behold, just last week a study conducted jointly by the University of Virginia and Stanford examining the DCPS IMPACT program was released.

One of the study’s authors, Stanford’s Thomas Dee, writes, “We found that a disproportionate share of low-performing teacher exits are from high-poverty schools. Our results indicate that DCPS is able to accurately identify low-performing teachers and consistently replace them with teachers who are more effective in raising student achievement, particularly in high-poverty schools.” (Emphasis added.)

The Washington Post’s Emma Brown writes, the departure of teachers who score poorly on IMPACT is beneficial “because student scores on math and reading tests tend to improve substantially after such teachers depart….” Brown adds thatstudent scores tend to drop slightly when high-performing teachers leave their assignment for another school or district, presumably because it is difficult to find replacements who are as effective. But overall, “because of the strong positive effect of exiting low-performing teachers, turnover under IMPACT led to an improvement in average student achievement, the study found.”

Additionally, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, the researchers find that 46 percent of low-performing teachers in D.C. leave each year, “which is more than three times the attrition rate of high-performers. It turns out that the mere threat of removal encourages many low-scorers to quit or shape up, and those who leave are generally replaced with better teachers.”

The authors of the study acknowledge concerns that high-performing teachers in D.C. may leave because of “the stress of high-stakes evaluation.” But James Wyckoff, the study’s other author said, “While these are reasonable concerns and in some situations this may occur, overall our analysis suggests they don’t hold true at DCPS. This likely reflects IMPACT’s design to retain more effective teachers and encourage low-performing teachers to leave.”

The unions have been uncharacteristically silent in the week since the report has surfaced, just as they were in 2013 when a study revealed similar results. But I’m sure they are busy at union command-central figuring out how they can negatively characterize the retention of good teachers, paying them well and unloading dead weight. The spin on this one could leave us all in a vertigo-like state.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Parents, Students, Businessmen, Mayors, Reformers, Civil Rights Groups, Conservatives, Liberals et al vs. Teachers Unions

It seems as if most of the civilized world is squaring off against the teachers unions these days; California’s SB 441 is the latest battle.

As a way to put some teeth in a moribund teacher evaluation system in California, State Senator Ron Calderon has written SB 441, a very modest bill, which would at long last begin to address a deplorable situation.

The bill would do the following:

1- (It) would require the evaluation and assessment at least every 3 years of the performance of each certificated employee with permanent status who have been employed at least 10 years with the school district and meet specified requirements.

(Existing law requires the evaluation and assessment of the performance of each certificated employee to be made on a continuing basis, as prescribed, including at least every other year for personnel with permanent status and at least every 5 years for personnel with permanent status who have been employed at least 10 years with the school district and meet specified requirements.)

2- (It) would instead require the governing board of each school district to regularly evaluate and assess the performance of certificated employees assigned to positions as classroom teachers or school principals using multiple measures, including, but not limited to, specified minimum criteria. The bill would require at least 4 rating levels to be used in evaluating a certificated employee and for the governing board of the school district to define each rating level used.

(Existing law requires the governing board of each school district to evaluate and assess certificated employee performance as it reasonably relates to specified matters.)

3- (It) would also require the governing board to avail itself of the advice of parents of pupils, as specified.

(Existing law requires the governing board of a school district, in the development and adoption of specified guidelines and procedures, to avail itself of the advice of the certificated instructional personnel in the district’s organization of certificated personnel.)

Hardly radical stuff. In fact, many teachers from the Los Angeles area spoke in favor of the bill before the Senate Education Committee last Wednesday. One teacher told the committee that he supported the bill because he’d undergone a more “comprehensive evaluation working at Blockbuster than I do as a public school teacher in California.”

Parent and student advocacy groups, business people and civil rights groups – representing all political persuasions – are supporting the bill, many of them trekking to Sacramento to make their voices heard.

  • Mayors of Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Jose
  • California United to Reform Education
  • EdVoice
  • Lanai Road Education Action Committee
  • Los Angeles Unified School District
  • Office of the Mayor of San Francisco
  • National Action Network Los Angeles
  • Orange County Business Council
  • Parent Partnership
  • Parent Revolution
  • Parents Advocate League
  • San Diego United Parents for Education
  • Simmons Group Inc.
  • Stand Up for Great Schools
  • StudentsFirst

Needless to say, there is one entity that is vehemently fighting to snuff the bill in committee: the teachers union. The following are opposing the bill’s passage:

  • California Federation of Teachers (CFT)
  • California School Employees Association (CSEA)
  • California Teachers Association (CTA)
  • United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA)

When teachers unions see any legislative threat to the status quo, they obfuscate the issue and then fiercely lobby to kill the bill. CTA’s response was typical – it offered up a 36 page monster spelling out its suggested teacher evaluation procedures. It’s difficult to believe that the union is serious about augmenting such a convoluted strategy, but since it needs to feign concern, it throws out an unrealistic alternative, knowing that it will never see the light of day. CTA’s main concern seems to be that teachers’ collective bargaining rights are going to be diminished. But there is nothing in this tame bill that would affect collective bargaining except for the increase in the frequency of teacher evaluations.

CTA is undoubtedly threatened by SB 441 because it sees this bill as the beginning of a slippery slope to greater reforms. They even had their #1 lobbyist, Pat Rucker, speak before the committee. (Just wondering: is it not a conflict of interest that Rucker, a high powered teacher union lobbyist, sits on the state board of education? The story of the fox guarding the henhouse would seem to apply.)

While the unions are doing their best to kill SB 441 in its present form, Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst is going in the other direction. If Rhee’s organization had its way, the bill would be strengthened by:

  • requiring that teachers and principals be evaluated annually.
  • defining what pupil progress means and designating the weight of pupil growth to be 30 to 50 percent of a teacher or principal’s evaluation.
  • eliminating seniority-based layoffs.

As an elementary and middle school teacher for over 28 years, I can attest to the fact that the bill as written is quite restrained and that StudentsFirst’s suggested amendments would be beneficial. But as certain as night follows day, it is also a fact that the teachers unions will do whatever they can to kill the bill in any form.

Needing five affirmative votes to get out of the education committee, the bill was stalled when the legislators voted 4-4-1 last Wednesday. It will be “reconsidered” this Wednesday, however, with the bill’s advocates and detractors going at it once again. Assuming the committee yeas and nays stand firm, the vote will be left to San Diego State Senator Marty Block who abstained last week. He is on good terms with the teachers unions and has introduced SB 657, a CFT sponsored teacher evaluation bill. But there is hope in some quarters that committee chair Carol Liu, who has backed other reform efforts, might change her vote to yes on SB 441.

On the UTLA website, there is a page devoted to the bill. Their “background” begins with the words:

SB 441 (Calderon) is pushed by disgraced former Chancellor of D.C. Schools Michelle Rhee and her StudentsFirst organization.

Nothing like a nasty ad hominem attack to add fuel to the fire. But then again, there is nothing new here. The unions invariably play dirty and make no bones about it. You want to talk about “disgrace?” The teachers unions wrote the book on it.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.