By Bill TurqueAs a candidate, Mayor Vincent C. Gray treaded cautiously when it came to questions about the IMPACT teacher evaluation system, arguably former Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's signature initiative. The Washington Teachers' Union, a major financial supporter, has big issues with the system, which uses growth in student test scores as part of the basis for assessing some educators. Rhee supporters -- including the philanthropic community that is investing tens of millions of dollars in DC schools -- see it as the heart of her program because it holds teachers more accountable than ever for what their students learn. Low IMPACT scores led to the dismissal of 126 teachers last year.
But on Saturday, at a panel on school reform and poverty at Adas Israel synagogue, Gray offered the most explicit criticism of IMPACT I've heard from him, asserting that the system is unfair to teachers in high-poverty schools. It is also the first substantive evidence that Gray and Interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson -- looked to by Rhee supporters as the keeper of the reform flame -- are not quite on the same page:
"It's better than what we had, but it certainly hasn't arrived," he said of IMPACT. "One element of it that I'm still unsatisfied with is. ... It's not the same to teach in Horace Mann [Elementary in Northwest] as to teach in Stanton Elementary School [in Southeast]. That's a very different challenge. And frankly I'm not convinced that we have figured out yet how, with an evaluation system that covers all teachers across the city, that you account for the social challenges that inevitably are to be addressed by a teacher at Stanton Elementary School in ways that are different from those at Horace Mann.
"So I guess I would say at this stage... it's a step in the right direction, but it's got a long way to go to be a fair evaluation of our teachers. And frankly any system that isn't sensitive to the differences in challenges of the kids in the schools only encourages teachers to teach in one part of the city and not in the other parts."
This is a direct challenge to the philosophical core of Rhee's vision: that really good teachers can reach kids no matter what their social or economic backgrounds. It also addresses a central teacher complaint about IMPACT. Many educators objected bitterly to a Nov.13 story I wrote, reporting that just 5 percent of the 636 teachers found to be "highly effective" under IMPACT in the 2009-10 school year work in Ward 8, while 22 percent work in Ward 3. They argue that many highly effective teachers in Northwest would see their IMPACT scores plummet if they worked with students in Wards 7 or 8.
All of this raises the more practical question of what will happen to the approximately 700 teachers who received "minimally effective" IMPACT scores last summer. Under the rules as written, they have until the end of the current school year to raise their scores or face dismissal. Gray did not address this Saturday. His education position pape says he wants to "move swiftly" to implement the independent study of IMPACT. . . .