Eric Bethel knows firsthand what the District’s school system was like before the era of reform. His parents, D.C. natives and part of the city’s accomplished black middle class, were public school teachers before and after his father served two decades in the U.S. Army, eventually as a captain in the 82nd Airborne Division. They moved back to Washington for Bethel’s high school years, and after graduating from a local Catholic school, playing point guard for Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, and earning a master’s degree, Bethel decided to follow the family tradition and apply for a teaching job in the D.C. area.
He was hired at Marie Reed Elementary School, part of DCPS, after a ten-minute interview at a folding table in the school gym. “Back then, if you had a pulse, you got a job,” he told me during one of several visits I made to Turner this year. On his first day, his colleagues walked out of a staff meeting, with the principal in midsentence, at exactly 3:30, the union-negotiated end of the teachers’ school day.
Bethel’s early experiences were emblematic of DCPS’s myriad failings. The patronage-plagued central office couldn’t calculate daily attendance, much less educate students. New hires often didn’t get paid for months. New textbooks gathered dust in warehouses while there weren’t enough to go around in classrooms. Elementary schools mostly didn’t teach art or music. High school electives were rare. And the system was hemorrhaging students to charter schools.
Low pay made it hard for D.C. teachers to live in the city and forced many to take second jobs. When Bethel sought to take advantage of a federal home subsidy program called Teacher Next Door, he tried repeatedly to get documentation from the school system’s central office to verify his teaching status. It never arrived.
In the absence of a common curriculum and citywide teaching standards, instruction in many classrooms was a steady diet of work sheets and other drudgery. “You were never sure what, or how, you should teach,” Bethel said.
Bethel had been at Marie Reed for seven years when Washington’s thirty-six-year-old mayor, Adrian Fenty, named Michelle Rhee chancellor, the day after a desperate city council shifted control of the school system from an elected school board to the mayor’s office. Rhee was the seventh chancellor in a decade.
Many commentators characterized her as a tough-talking but inexperienced outsider, an ingénue with an attitude. In truth, she had been working closely with D.C. school officials for nearly a decade as the founder of the New Teacher Project (now TNTP), a national organization conceived by Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp to help urban school systems recruit more talented teachers by skirting the traditional education school pipeline. It was Kopp who recommended Rhee to Fenty. To Rhee, higher-quality teachers were key to exploding the notion that poor kids couldn’t learn—to proving, in her words, that “demography is not destiny.”
She realized that she first had to get a clearer sense of the talent in the city’s classrooms. While upward of 90 percent of Washington’s students were performing below grade level the year before Rhee arrived, 95 percent of the city’s teachers had earned “satisfactory” ratings. Rhee quickly resolved to build a new evaluation system that made performance matter.
Kaya Henderson, who had been Teach for America’s D.C. director and then managed Rhee’s New Teacher Project work in the city, supervised the project as the new chancellor’s chief of human capital. She worked with Jason Kamras, a Princeton graduate who had arrived in Washington a decade earlier through Teach for America and stayed, becoming the national Teacher of the Year in 2005–06.
At the beginning of the 2009–10 school year, Henderson and Kamras launched the most comprehensive teacher measurement system ever implemented in public education. It set citywide teaching standards for the first time ever. In the past, principals would spend a few minutes in teachers’ classrooms every year, looking mostly for quiet students and clean blackboards. Under the new system, every teacher would be observed five times a year—three times by the administrators in their schools and twice by “master educators” from the central office who would provide an independent check on principals’ ratings. Teachers would be gauged on their “commitment to the school community,” such as their contributions to school priorities like lowering suspension rates, and on student performance on nonstandardized assessments, like science projects, known as “student learning objectives.” Principals could dock teachers for chronic absenteeism and other failures of “core professionalism.”
But Henderson also wanted teachers to be measured on their students’ standardized test scores, to send a clear signal that performance mattered. Strategies for fairly comparing teachers with students of varying backgrounds were both complex and imperfect. Undeterred, Henderson ordered that student test scores make up 50 percent of teachers’ ratings if they taught tested subjects and grades. That turned out to be only 15 percent of the school system’s teaching force, but the move stoked anxiety and resentment throughout the city’s teaching ranks.
Rhee’s team deepened teachers’ angst by not piloting the new teacher evaluation system—dubbed IMPACT—despite the fact that many principals weren’t sufficiently trained to use it and that teachers in some schools weren’t briefed on IMPACT until after the school year started. The need for the new system was too great to delay, Henderson argued. Suddenly, teachers were confronted by a new, untested evaluation strategy they barely grasped, with their livelihoods on the line.
Bethel saw the drama play out at Marie Reed. “People were panicked about losing their jobs,” he said. “Everyone thought IMPACT was aimed at getting rid of veterans.” Later, he would spend two years rating teachers as a master educator, often taking part in difficult conversations with teachers distraught at the performance reviews he gave them.
But Bethel supported IMPACT. “I liked the new teaching standards that were a part of the new system,” he said. “And I was tired of looking down the hall at Mr. Johnson teaching work sheets five days a week to his fourth-grade class, knowing that I would have to catch them up the next year in my class.” He was among the 663 of Washington’s 4,195 teachers rated “highly effective” when IMPACT’s first scores were released in July 2010. Seventy-five teachers were labeled “ineffective” and received termination letters with their scores.
The firings brought opposition to Rhee to a boil. Early on, she had gotten rid of dozens of untenured teachers for sleeping in class and other misbehavior. She had removed 250 teachers and 500 teacher’s aides for lacking proper teaching credentials. Within weeks of rolling out IMPACT, she had announced that budget cuts required her to lay off another 266 teachers. She had fired a quarter of the city’s principals, including the one at her daughters’ school; she even showed one principal the door in front of a PBS camera. She had announced the closing of twenty-three under-enrolled schools without telling anyone at the schools ahead of time. And she had declared in a speech at the National Press Club that consensus building and compromise were “totally overrated.”
Now, she was firing veteran teachers for in-effective teaching—something that had virtually never happened in public education. The nation’s teachers’ unions deployed every ounce of their considerable influence against her. The story became a cable news staple. Rhee was so controversial that the Gates Foundation refused to include D.C. in a $500 million national study to measure teaching effectiveness.
Ultimately, she cost Adrian Fenty, her patron, his political career.
Rhee was firing Washington’s predominantly black educators during the height of one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history. The city’s majority black voters held Fenty, himself black, directly responsible. He lost the September 2010 Democratic primary in a landslide. With a primary victory tantamount to election in the overwhelmingly Democratic city, Rhee resigned in October—but not before another magazine cover, this time Newsweek’s, trumpeted her plans to launch a $100 million anti–teachers’ union lobbying organization called StudentsFirst.
Even in defeat, Rhee couldn’t shake controversy. In March 2011, USA Today ran a front-page story headlined “When Standardized Test Scores Soared in D.C., Were the Gains Real?,” an examination of suspected Rhee-era cheating. The problem turned out to be concentrated in a few schools, and investigations found no evidence of widespread cheating. But the incident cemented the conventional wisdom that teacher reform in Washington was mostly about test scores, and mostly misguided.
In the wake of Rhee’s departure and the controversy that enveloped her, the school system worked hard to stay out of the spotlight that Rhee had welcomed. Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s successor, would largely refuse to talk to the national media at the outset of her nearly six-year tenure as chancellor, which ended last September.
But rather than abandon her predecessor’s commitment to teacher reform, Henderson doubled down. She was smoother around the edges than Rhee, but just as driven. She had spent her early years in public housing just north of the Bronx as the only child of a single mother who was a public educator by day and a postal worker by night.
After attending public and parochial schools, she went on to Georgetown University and then back to the Bronx to teach. School reform was personal for her.
Before becoming chancellor, she had led bruising negotiations with the teachers’ union on a new contract that ended a wide range of industrial-era employment practices. In exchange for a 22 percent salary hike for many teachers, the new deal, inked months before Rhee departed, stripped senior teachers’ right to claim vacancies; made performance, rather than seniority, the key factor in layoffs; and effectively ended teacher tenure.
It also scrapped public education’s sacrosanct “single salary schedule”—paying teachers strictly on the basis of their academic credentials and longevity in the classroom—in favor of performance pay. “Minimally effective” teachers would be frozen on the salary scale. But their “highly effective” counterparts would qualify for bonuses and permanent hikes that lifted Washington’s top teachers’ salaries from $87,000 to $132,000 for the regular school year.
With the new teacher evaluation system and financial incentives in place, Henderson and her team launched projects to recruit and retain high-caliber teachers, like Eric Christopher, who in the past had mostly shunned the troubled urban school system. It wouldn’t help much to fire bad teachers if they couldn’t replace them with better ones.
Under the leadership of a young Stanford graduate and Rhodes Scholar on Kamras’s team named Scott Thompson, they constructed a “career ladder” based on experience and performance that would provide teachers a range of new opportunities, and higher pay, as they moved up. The important and lucrative work of teaching summer school, for example, would go to the city’s best teachers, rather than merely to the most senior ones.
Henderson revamped teacher recruitment, pouring people and money into marketing D.C. schools to 15,000 urban traditional and charter public school teachers in the Washington region and nationally—a move that prompted local charter school leaders to complain to Henderson and to take their teachers’ email addresses off their websites.
Meanwhile, the IMPACT system was producing vast amounts of previously unavailable data. For example, Henderson and Jason Kamras, her successor as chief of human capital, learned from studying the ratings that teachers hired by May were 20 percent more effective than those hired in August. So they pressed principals to push up their hiring timelines. University of Michigan researchers discovered that teachers hired under the new, centralized teacher-screening system, called TeachDC, produced sharply higher IMPACT scores than those recruited by principals directly. Henderson and Kamras began marketing TeachDC heavily to principals.
The moves made a difference. Today, three times as many recruits are under contract by the end of the previous school year, more new hires have previous teaching experience, and university research has found that replacements for low-rated teachers produced four or five months’ worth of additional student learning in math and nearly as much in reading over three school years.
Henderson and Kamras worked just as hard to keep top talent from leaving. Beyond the better pay and the career ladder, they made changes to IMPACT to get more teacher buy-in, including reducing the influence of student test scores on teacher ratings. They revamped the central office to better support teachers. They also established the Teacher Retention Team, which feted high performers with personalized thank-you notes, leadership opportunities, membership in the Chancellor’s Teacher Cabinet, and an annual black-tie event at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts complete with Grammy-winning entertainers and a rooftop dinner for 2,000.
The retention strategies paid off. While charter schools and surrounding suburbs once poached Washington talent with impunity, the city last year lost only 6 percent of its top-rated educators, even as “highly effective” teachers grew to 37 percent of the teaching force. That contrasted sharply with the 49 percent attrition rate among teachers rated “minimally effective,” who made up 4 percent of the force.
Even as Henderson and Kamras upgraded their talent pool, they realized that they couldn’t produce the student improvement they wanted with pink slips and thank-you notes alone; they had to ratchet up the performance of the entire teaching force. Brian Pick, another Princeton graduate and TFA veteran in the DCPS central office, worked with dozens of the city’s highest-performing teachers to craft entirely new reading, math, and writing curricula based on the demanding Common Core State Standards. After watching teachers struggle to deliver the new subject matter effectively, Pick’s team created sample lessons for every subject at every grade level to give teachers models, again with the help of the school system’s leading teachers.
Last summer, Henderson and Kamras went further, assigning teachers to learning teams in every school to deliver a comprehensive new teacher-training curriculum. These “LEAP” teams—short for “Learning Together to Advance our Practice”—are weekly ninety-minute sessions, led by subject-matter expert teachers and administrators, in which faculty work together to hone their teaching techniques, deepen their subject-matter knowledge, and review student work and school data. The sessions are followed up with weekly informal observations in every classroom, giving teachers regular feedback without the high stakes attached to IMPACT. It’s the kind of collaboration and support that many public school teachers, isolated in their classrooms, have long asked for but rarely gotten. As Turner reading teacher and seventeen-year DCPS veteran Ericka Logan put it, “Now it feels like people care about our work.”
Henderson and her team also worked to produce stronger school leaders, because research showed that lousy principals were a big reason why top teachers departed. In 2013, Eric Bethel, after his two-year tour as an IMPACT master educator, became one of the first trainees in the school system’s new eighteen-month principal apprenticeship program, serving in two elementary schools before taking over Turner Elementary.
Turner is a standard-issue-looking public elementary school dating to the Truman administration—a rectangular, three-story redbrick building with a small gym and a cafeteria that doubles as an auditorium. Its classrooms are bright and stocked with attractive new furniture; the gym floor shines, thanks to a renovation the year before Bethel arrived. The din of young children at play rises during recess from brightly colored playground equipment, a basketball court, and an adjacent sports field.
It could be any school in the country, except for the fact that it is surrounded by often-troubled housing projects. Some of the aging, low-slung redbrick housing units have been replaced in recent years by suburban-like townhouses with a vaguely Tudor look. But as Bethel told me on one of the days I visited, “They look a lot better than what’s going on inside of them.” One day in March, as students were leaving at the end of the day, two men in a BMW were raked by automatic-weapon fire five blocks from Turner and crashed their car just outside the school’s entrance. One of the men died.
I sat with Bethel in his office near the end of a school day just before Thanksgiving, talking about a veteran teacher who had vowed that Bethel would burn in hell for giving her a low IMPACT rating during his two years working out of the DCPS central office as a teacher-evaluator. “It was tough work,” he told me, as his walkie-talkie crackled. “Especially when teachers are working hard but just aren’t effective.” Two big picture windows opened onto the playground, with bands of the city’s townhouses visible in the middle distance. There was a picture of Bethel’s wife and four-year-old son on his desk; on a bulletin board hung a note from a second grader addressed to “the best principle ever.”
When the bell rang sounding dismissal at the end of the day, we walked into the hallway as orderly rows of young students in blue or white polo shirts and khaki pants moved down either side of the hallway, backpacks bulging behind them. Just under six feet tall and dressed in a gray suit, white shirt, and pale blue tie, Bethel put his arm around students who paused to say goodbye, addressing them by their names and wishing them a good day in a calm, caring voice.
As students filed past the front security desk to parents and guardians waiting outside, many other adults were entering the building headed in the opposite direction. They were there for the school’s monthly food bank. I watched some 300 students, more than half the school’s enrollment, along with relatives, many of them grandparents pushing strollers, snake through Turner’s gym, filling brightly colored shopping bags with fruit, vegetables, and other basics supplied by a local nonprofit, as City Year volunteers dressed as giant fruit serenaded the kids.
While the food bank was concluding, Bethel and a team of Turner’s math teachers were gathering for an after-school LEAP session around a modern, maple-veneer table in the school’s “professional development room,” a converted second-floor classroom. Assistant principal Rosado, Eric Christopher, and other teacher leaders were also at the table. The school’s latest math results were projected on an interactive whiteboard behind them.
Bethel, pitched forward in his seat with his elbows on the table, jumped into a review of spreadsheets that showed a lot more red, for students below grade level, than green, for those at grade level. The new results were from tests used to help with instruction rather than rate teachers under IMPACT. But Bethel stressed that the interim scores were highly correlated with the city’s new standardized exams and urged the teachers to track their students’ results closely.
“We’ve got to do better with ST Math,” he told the teachers at one point, concerned that the self-paced instructional software that supplements teachers’ instruction was underused. Simple things like logging young children on to their computers proved challenging and cut into instructional time, the teachers responded.
After more discussion of the new results, Bethel turned the meeting over to instructional coach Jessica Johnson, who led a LEAP seminar on the most productive ways of having students do math problems in class.
Johnson started by talking about ways to ensure that students grasp what’s being asked of them in word problems. “Ask students to read the question aloud together,” she suggested. “Or have them turn and talk about the problem with the person next to them. Other ideas? Yes, Ms. Gilbeaux?”
“Manipulatives and other visual aids are often helpful,” Janeé Gilbeaux, a second-grade teacher, offered.
“Scaffolding is key,” added Bethel, who had been tracking Johnson’s presentation closely. “You have to make sure students understand what the problem is asking of them and keep adding more levels of explanation until they get it.”
The session continued in this vein—Johnson presenting information followed by a back-and-forth conversation about the nuts and bolts of educating young math students—for two and a half hours. By the time the meeting ended, it was nearly six p.m. and dark outside. As the teachers made their way to the parking lot, it was hard not to be struck by the difference between the culture at Turner and the one that, years ago, had led Bethel’s colleagues to walk out on their principal at precisely 3:30.
There’s no doubt that the school reform stars aligned in Washington over the past decade. There was a rare infusion of talent in the central office; stable leadership enabled by mayoral control of city schools; freedom from key collective bargaining obstacles; and substantial funding, first from grants, then from savings from improvements in the city’s special education system.
By no means is every Washington teacher happy with the reforms. Teaching in neighborhoods like Turner’s is stressful; Turner’s teacher absenteeism rate is higher than Bethel would like. Some principals have been less fully committed to the reforms than Bethel has, and a handful of DCPS schools struggle with teachers leaving during the school year. The quality of the implementation of the new LEAP initiative has varied from school to school, according to Bridget Hamre, a University of Virginia researcher who is studying the effort.
And despite academic gains, the school system still has a very long way to go. Achievement levels among Hispanic and black students, who make up 82 percent of enrollment, lag badly behind their white peers. Only 15 percent of black students scored “proficient” in reading last year on Washington’s new, more demanding, Common Core–aligned exams, compared to 74 percent of white students.
Still, the transformation of the teaching profession in the nation’s capital has demonstrated that traditional public school systems, not just charter schools, can be laboratories of innovation. And the reforms that the school system’s detractors have opposed most strongly have been central to the transformation. Creating the opportunities to advance within the profession, the substantial compensation incentives, and the culture of collegiality and continuous improvement that LEAP provides would have been next to impossible without abandoning seniority-based staffing, without performance-based pay and a career ladder, and, ultimately, without knowing who is doing a good job in the city’s classrooms and who isn’t.
Henderson, Kamras, and their colleagues have proved that it’s possible to attract talented teachers to the nation’s urban school systems and get them to stay. Teaching can be turned into attractive work with career opportunities, professional support, and substantial pay. No school system can simply wave a wand and overcome the impact of poverty on the students it serves. But by overhauling its teaching corps and teachers’ daily lives in schools, DCPS has given its students a far better chance than they had before. And it has created an important reform blueprint for other leaders to follow