D.C. teacher: Why I believe I was really fired
Peter Gwynn, a D.C. public school teacher who was one of 206 teachers fired this month under the IMPACT evaluation system, writes here about why he believes he was really let go. The fired teachers, my colleague Bill Turque reported, amount to 5 percent of the 4,100 teachers in the system. IMPACT was first implemented under the chancellorship of Michelle Rhee, who quit last October and was succeeded by her deputy, Kaya Henderson. IMPACT has been criticized on a range of issues, with critics calling it arbitrary and punitive and primarily a way to fire veteran teachers. D.C. schools officials reject the criticism.
By Peter Gwynn
Ambiguity can be a friend or an enemy. If you are a D.C. Public Schools teacher, it might just depend on who gets to measure the difference between words like sometimes and frequently.
I was one of the 200-plus DCPS teachers fired last week due to poor evaluations. I believe, though I cannot prove, that I was fired from DCPS, the Columbia Heights Education Campus (CHEC) in particular, because of the opinions and ideas expressed in my blog. Given the facts, this is simply what makes the most sense to me. But the more important point is that the system’s teacher evaluation system, IMPACT,is riddled with ambiguity and imprecise language such that administrators could easily manipulate teacher scores to punish or reward as suits their ends.
For most teachers, IMPACT is composed primarily of five, half-hour observations throughout the year. Three observations come from school-based administrators; two from a District master educator.
In each observation the evaluator uses a rubric to judge the teacher in nine separate performance categories. In each category, the teacher is scored a 1, 2, 3 or 4. These are averaged to produce an observation score of 1-4. The five separate observations are then averaged to produce an overall yearly score of 1-4.
The magic number is 2.5. If you score at or above this mark, you areeffective or highly effective and your job is safe. Scoring below 2.5 defines you as ineffective or minimally effective and your job is lost or in jeopardy. I scored below 2.5 for two consecutive years and was fired.
I believe that my administrators wanted to get rid of me and that I was punished for my writing. In the blog I never reference people or places by name — and my name is not on it — though I do recount events from my school truthfully and in detail. It is satirical, vulgar, bombastic, and critical. If I worked for myself, I would want to fire me. Many people have expressed disapproval of the blog. That is their right, as it is my right to write it.
I believe I was targeted by the administration because that is where the evidence points.
Over two years of IMPACT, my master educator scores averaged 2.75, comfortably effective (your job is job safe). Over the same two years, my in-house evaluations averaged 2.06, comfortably minimally effective(your job is in danger). The difference is 0.69; fairly large on a scale that runs only from 1 to 4.
But the timeline is what draws my attention most. My first school-basedIMPACT observation was in November 2009. I was scored effective. I started the blog one month later in December. By the end of January 2010, I had been informed that the administration was aware of my blog and reading it. This was confirmed by another source shortly after. Strategically, I suspect, the administration has never asked or confronted me about the blog.
Henceforth, my school-based evaluators scored me, without exception,minimally effective or ineffective. Meanwhile, the master educators continued to score me effective. One master educator this year noted how much I had improved since last year.
So, how could this happen?
Ambiguity in the language of IMPACT invites the capricious, perhaps subconscious, punishment or reward of teachers by administrators. Though it is cloaked in the false precision of a rubric, it is infinitely subtle and subject to manipulation. For example, in a single half-hour observation, while simultaneously monitoring and scoring eight other performance measures, an evaluator is expected to be sure if a lesson is:
Accessible and challenging to all students (score 4)
Accessible and challenging to almost all students (score 3)
Accessible and challenging to most students (score 2); or
Not accessible and not challenging to most students (score 1).
Most teachers live in the 2-3 range. If I was an administrator and I wanted to get rid of somebody, I would shade to the 2. Nobody could stop me. Nobody else was there to witness what happened. Nobody is able to check if I am consistent between teachers. It is up to me to decide what almost all means and how I will measure it in that half hour.
IMPACT is littered with language like this; subjective and inviting manipulation.
I don’t know for certain that I was targeted and that the ambiguity of IMPACT was used to illegally punish my speech. But the language of IMPACT, my IMPACT data, and the CHEC administration’s well-earned reputation for tolerating no dissent give me specific cause to suspect it.
If IMPACT is to be taken seriously in the future, this should be fixed.-0-
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UPDATE 4:05 p.m. This item has been updated to reflect a new count of the total number of teachers fired for poor ratings--206, not 227. Also, the tally of teachers fired in 2010 for poor ratings is now given as 75, not 126.
The District fired 206 teachers for poor performance Friday, the second year in a row it has dismissed significant numbers of educators for sub-par work in the classroom.
Those fired amount to 5 percent of the 4,100 teachers in the city school system.
They were dismissed for poor scores on the evaluation system known as IMPACT, which grades teachers on five 30-minute classroom observations and their compliance with nine broad standards. These include ability to express course content clearly, teach students with differing skill levels and manage time effectively. For some teachers, half of their appraisal is contingent on whether students meet predicted growth targets on standardized tests.
The evaluation system, one of the nation’s most rigorous and closely watched, is a legacy of Michelle A. Rhee’s tenure as city schools chancellor. Rhee, who resigned in October, was succeeded by her deputy, Kaya Henderson.
Of the 206 fired, officials said 65 were rated ineffective this year and 141 were judged minimally effective for the second consecutive year. Others were let go for licensure problems or other issues.
Four teachers who were rated minimally effective two years in a row received waivers from Henderson, enabling them to continue to teach in the city, based on the recommendation of principals who said they still had potential for improvement.
Another 663 teachers (16 percent) were rated highly effective, making them eligible for performance bonuses of up to $25,000. The vast majority were rated effective.
Last year, IMPACT’s first in operation, 75 teachers were let go for poor scores.
“Great teachers are critical to our success,” Henderson said in a statement. “We are delighted to be able to shine a spotlight on our top performers. We also remain committed to moving out our lowest performers in an effort to ensure that every child has access to an outstanding education.”
Large-scale dismissals of teachers for job performance is still a rarity in big city schools, experts say. Collective bargaining agreements and often-cumbersome appeals processes, combined with a reluctance on the part of officials to confront politically potent unions, have limited firings.
“The only people who typically lose their jobs in districts are people who are guilty of a crime,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, an organization that studies and promotes methods to improve instruction in schools. “It’s rare that there are any significant numbers of teachers who lose their jobs because they are not good at teaching their subjects.”
D.C. public schools and other school systems have had annual evaluation systems for many years. But they have typically been pro forma affairs, with the overwhelming majority of educators receiving satisfactory ratings.
Rhee, citing research that showed teacher quality is the largest in-school factor driving academic growth, revamped evaluations. Her effort was buoyed by an unusual feature of District law, which unlike many other cities, exempts evaluation systems from collective bargaining. That meant Rhee enjoyed broad latitude in designing IMPACT.
Union leaders and many teachers have assailed the system as arbitrary and punitive. They call it a vehicle for Rhee, and now Henderson, to push older veterans out of the system. They assert that IMPACT does little to help develop them professionally and makes little allowance for school or classroom conditions that hinder instruction and lead to lower evaluation ratings. Union leaders are fighting IMPACT in the courtroom and in discussions with Henderson and members of the D.C. Council.
In the 2009-10 school year, when IMPACT debuted, almost 70 percent of teachers (2,892) scored in the “effective” range. About 16 percent (663) were rated “highly effective,” making them eligible for performance bonuses of up to $25,000. Less than 2 percent (72) were deemed “ineffective” and dismissed. Another 13 percent (568) were found to be ”minimally effective.” Of those, a small number had their jobs eliminated last year for budget or enrollment reasons. The rest are subject to termination this month if they receive the same rating.