ANNOTATION: The Facts About D.C.’s Teacher Reforms

Mark Simon, a longtime teacher union activist, argues in a recent Washington Post op-ed that improving the public school teaching profession should focus on “empowering” teachers, giving them greater autonomy in their schools and classrooms, and he judges the ambitious teacher reforms in the nation’s capital over the past decade through that lens.

FutureEd Director Thomas Toch, who has researched the District of Columbia Public Schools’ reforms extensively, points in this FutureEd Annotation to flaws in Simon’s analysis. DCPS has upgraded its teaching profession substantially since 2007. The school system, as one example, has staunched and in many instances reversed the recruitment of its top teachers by Washington’s charter schools.

But DCPS hasn’t achieved success by turning teachers loose in their classrooms. Rather, the school system’s leaders have systematically transformed what had long been a low-status occupation marked by weak standards and factory-like work into a performance-based profession that provides recognition, responsibility, collegiality, support, and significant compensation—a transformation grounded in an understanding of who is doing a good job in Washington’s classrooms and who isn’t.

This past year, D.C. Public Schools rolled out Learning Together to Advance Our Practice (LEAP), an initiative to empower teachers to help each other improve their practice.

Under LEAP, assistant principals, instructional coaches, and highly rated teachers, all of whom have demonstrated expertise in subject areas, lead weekly 90-minute sessions with teams of teachers in their schools, using curricula designed by DCPS’ office of instructional practice to hone their teaching techniques, deepen their subject-matter knowledge, and review student work and school data. The sessions are followed by weekly informal observations in every LEAP team member’s classroom and one-on-one “debriefing” conversations after the observations—giving teachers informal weekly feedback on their teaching that supplements the formal observations they receive under DCPS’ IMPACT teacher evaluation system.

Former chancellor Kaya Henderson and her team launched LEAP when they recognized that teachers needed help delivering the DCPS’ demanding new curriculum that is based on the Common Core State Standards. They also saw LEAP as a way to improve teacher professional development by bringing it into schools and making it directly relevant to teachers’ daily work in their classrooms. An important by-product has been regular professional conversations and greater collegiality, something that teachers in American public education routinely say they want but rarely receive.

Done right, this approach to teachers and teaching could usher in a culture of professionalism, teamwork and collegiality among educators. But “could” is the operative word. Unfortunately, the micromanaged, top-down implementation of initiatives in DCPS and the resulting teacher cynicism could doom the project.

Teacher unions and their allies are fond of calling any reform they don’t like “top-down.” A more accurate description of Henderson’s work in DCPS over the past decade is “leadership.”

From 2007 and to LEAP’s launch in 2016, Henderson (who directed Michelle Rhee’s teacher reforms before replacing her as chancellor) and her team, led by former U.S. Teacher of the Year Jason Kamras, created DCPS’ first-ever district-wide teaching standards, developed one of the most comprehensive teacher evaluation systems in the nation, built a sophisticated career ladder that promotes teacher leadership roles, and designed a performance-based pay system that has lifted top salaries from $87,000 to $132,000 (and even higher in year-round schools).

They established rigorous new academic standards, drafted a comprehensive new curriculum built on the standards, created hundreds of model lessons to help teachers deliver the new curriculum (including dozens of the city’s top teachers in the design work), revamped the district’s principal and teacher recruitment and hiring systems, replaced the district’s information-management platforms, rebuilt DCPS’s long-dysfunctional special-education system, and, last summer, introduced LEAP.

It is an unprecedented record of reform, and LEAP would not have been possible without the earlier changes. The LEAP teacher leaders were identified through the school system’s IMPACT evaluation system, promoted and compensated through the new career ladder and performance-pay system, and hired in schools after the abolition of seniority-based staffing—all reforms that teacher unions opposed.

For nine years, under Chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson, DCPS implemented controversial, fear-based mandates aimed at teachers and principals, assuming the workforce to be failing and incompetent.

The workforce that Rhee and Henderson inherited had plenty of teachers who needed to find other occupations. The reforms they implemented removed many of those teachers (about 3 percent have been released annually since 2010), but also rewarded outstanding teachers (only 6 percent of the city’s top-rated teachers—38 percent of the 4,150-person teaching force— leave annually). Now, through LEAP, they are drawing on the talent at the top of the profession to help improve the many teachers in the middle.

DCPS requires teachers to follow rigid rubrics, not their own judgments. The IMPACT teacher evaluation system bestows a numerical rating on each teacher. Teachers study the rubrics and imitate the behaviors. Unfortunately, even with LEAP, IMPACT remains as the teacher-evaluation system and dominates the professional culture.

What really bothers Simon is the very idea of evaluating teachers. In the pre-Rhee era in Washington, evaluation was a hollow exercise with no consequences for either teachers or principals, which was fine with teachers unions charged with protecting their members’ jobs. D.C.’s teacher evaluation system is one of the most comprehensive (and thus most dependable, though certainly not perfect…there’s no such thing as a perfect evaluation system) in the nation, incorporating clear teaching standards, multiple classroom observations, student surveys, student test scores (for 15 percent of the teaching force), teachers’ contribution to school culture, and other indicators.

Absent a legitimate evaluation system, it would have been impossible to build a credible career ladder and performance-based compensation systems, to strengthen recruitment and retention—and thus to create the talent pool and selection platform for the teacher leaders who play a key role in the LEAP system that Simon and his unions colleagues praise.

Last year, DCPS made IMPACT worse by eliminating the trusted second opinion of master educators entirely, giving principals complete control over the ratings, rewards and punishments. Teachers hate IMPACT. The most accomplished teachers dislike it the most because it discourages innovation and creative teaching.

Many D.C. teachers certainly were anxious and often angry about IMPACT when it was introduced system-wide before the start of the 2009-10 school year. Henderson didn’t pilot the new model; the need for the new system was too great to delay, she argued. Suddenly, teachers were confronted by a new, untested evaluation strategy they barely grasped, with their livelihoods on the line. But eight years later, after several rounds of refinements to IMPACT based on teacher feedback, the city’s teachers are increasingly supportive of the focus on instruction and improvement that IMPACT has engendered.

LEAP, by contrast, is trying to build a culture favoring nonjudgmental conversations among educators, exposing vulnerabilities and opening avenues for feedback. Up to 90 minutes each week is devoted to team discussions. One specially trained teacher in each department or grade-level team spends at least half her time observing fellow teachers, providing feedback and facilitating team conversations.

Not accurate. Some LEAP leaders are teachers rated highly under DCPS’ evaluation system. But others are instructional coaches and assistant principals. All LEAP leaders must successfully navigate subject matters tests and central office interviews to be selected. Teachers in the roles receive performance-based pay increases.

Teachers meet as subject or grade-level teams to learn from each other. It’s potentially revolutionary — the opposite of individual ranking and rating according to rigid rubrics. LEAP could be the opposite of the top-down, micromanaging approach to teachers.

The city’s teachers told Henderson and Kamras in scores of focus group sessions that they wanted help in teaching the Common Core, that they didn’t have time in their busy schedules to be researching instructional strategies on their own. In response, Henderson and her team created a new curriculum, hundreds model lessons called Cornerstones, and then LEAP. That’s called “support,” not “micromanagement.” Before Rhee and Henderson arrived, new textbooks gathered dust in warehouses while there weren’t enough to go around in classrooms.

So what’s going on here? Giving DCPS the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the past nine years of firing, hiring and high turnover has brought DCPS a handpicked teacher and principal workforce, so the future can involve trusting the professional judgment of educators. But DCPS should be honest about the change in culture, how different it is from what went on before.

The DCPS reforms, which Simon and his allies fought tooth and nail, have indeed greatly strengthened Washington’s teaching profession.

Henderson and Kamras found that teachers hired earlier in the annual recruitment process produce better classroom results, and today three times as many recruits as a decade ago are under contract by the end of the previous school year. More new hires have previous teaching experience. And university research has found that DCPS’ replacements for low-rated teachers produce four or five months’ worth of additional student learning in math and nearly as much in reading over three school years.

The mixed messages may indicate a lack of commitment to a new professional culture. If DCPS truly wants to build new habits of teaming and collaboration, it needs to send a consistent message that it trusts teachers.

There are no mixed messages. The two sides of reform in DCPS are mutually reinforcing. Arguing, as Simon does, that evaluating and coaching teachers is tantamount to not trusting them is like saying a baseball team that hires a coach must not trust its players.

In one-third of schools, LEAP teachers are grade-level or subject colleagues. In another third, they’re assistant principals, mixing support with top-down supervision. And in the final third, they’re instructional coaches. Only a system of teachers helping teachers is true to the LEAP concept.

Wrong. LEAP has provided performance-based leadership opportunities for the city’s teachers (opportunities teacher unions have long undermined by opposing meaningful teacher evaluation, performance-based staffing, and performance-based compensation). But DCPS’ instructional coaches are also talented educators. And,importantly, the IMPACT evaluation system and now LEAP have signaled the importance of instructional leadership to the work of D.C.’s school leaders, who in the past have prioritized their roles as building managers. This is good for both students and teachers, who say they greatly value having administrators working closely with them on instruction, not just things like bus duty and parent conferences.

David Tansey, who was a LEAP math teacher at McKinley Technology High School last year, is pleased by the new direction in DCPS. “They’re finally getting it,” he said, “but they’re not willing to acknowledge that LEAP, done right, is the opposite of the top-down approach that’s been in charge for the past nine years. Their compliance obsession could still kill it.”

Again, LEAP is a top-down initiative to the extent that it is a district-wide initiative managed from the central office, which designs and administers the program, providing training and instructional materials for the school-based team leaders. To Simon and others in the union movement, “top-down” is code for “accountability,” of which they want no part.

Laura Fuchs, a Woodson High School social studies teacher, was selected as the LEAP teacher for her department during the pilot stage but declined to continue for her department last year. “LEAP makes assumptions about what teachers are not doing — that we’re not collaborating and communicating with each other. It actually took away time from that, forcing us to use canned materials and putting the emphasis on LEAP teachers and administrators entering observation notes to the computer.” Those implementation problems could spell the difference between success and hostility from the teaching workforce. “One size fits all won’t work with this,” said Fuchs.

DCPS administration seems sensitive to the concerns. The instructions to next year’s LEAP teachers include school flexibility. The new direction allows less frequent meetings and more discretion as to how time is used to meet the needs of teachers and students in each school — less top-down, more judgment at the schoolhouse.

Of course schools should have the flexibility to tailor reforms to individual school circumstances, unless standards get lowered. But in the union worldview, “judgment at the schoolhouse” typically means “no accountability for performance.”

The good news is that after nine years of little progress in narrowing achievement gaps, and chasing blunt-instrument indicators of success such as test scores and suspension and graduation rates, DCPS might finally be emphasizing the learning that can take place between teachers about the choices they make with their students. This bottom-up approach to quality teaching could be truly interesting.

Simon implies that teacher reforms in the District of Columbia over the past decade have failed to help the city’s many students of color. That’s false.

Daily attendance has reached 90 percent in D.C., up from 85 percent in 2010-11 and chronic truancy rates are down substantially. Contrary to Simon’s claim, these measures matter; when students aren’t in school, they can’t learn. Graduation rates have climbed to 69 percent, the highest in the city’s history.

And while trying to establish causal relationships between student test scores and education policies is a fraught exercise, the recently released results by D.C. students on the spring 2017 administration of the demanding and highly regarded PARCC standardized tests showed improvement at every grade level for every student group.

The proportion of students scoring proficient or above on the rigorous and independent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) more than doubled from 14 percent in 2007 to 30 percent in 2015 in fourth grade reading and from 10 percent to 33 percent in fourth grade math, bringing Washington up to the middle of the pack of urban school districts at that grade level, while the city’s black students largely closed gaps with African American students nationwide. D.C’s NAEP scores have improved faster than any other urban district’s since Rhee arrived in Washington.

These improvements represent the beginning of a long climb to academic respectability. African American and Hispanic students continue to lag far behind those of their white peers, as Simon notes, a reflection of the challenges of overcoming the severe poverty in which many of D.C.’s students of color live. But the trends are positive.

DCPS could finally become the innovation engine in our city. Charter schools, with their much higher rates of teacher turnover, are not, by and large, engaged in anything as bold as LEAP’s gamble on teaching.

LEAP, done right, is an experiment in a new approach — anything but a continuation of the strategies of the past nine years. Whether that will be the case is unclear.

One more time again: It’s the reforms of the past decade that have made LEAP possible—new teacher evaluation, compensation, recruitment and retention, and staffing systems that identify and reward teacher leaders and get them to schools that need them; new, district-wide curriculum and instructional standards and strategies; and more. Henderson and her team, building on Rhee’s early reform agenda, are responsible for all of them.

Simon’s op-ed, Is DCPS Really Redesigning Teaching?, ran in The Washington Post on Aug. 11.