D.C. is a bright spot in the dismal teacher dismissal landscape

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Of the many school-based factors that impact student learning, evidence is clear that teacher quality matters most. Countless studies show that students assigned to high-performing teachers see notably bigger gains in achievement than their peers with less effective teachers, and that students benefit when low-performing teachers exit the classroom.

Despite this reality, dismissing chronically low-performing teachers from the classroom remains far too hard (and removing low-performing veteran teachers is harder still). As my colleague David Griffith and I found a few months ago when evaluating teacher dismissal policies in twenty-five diverse districts, significant barriers remain in place in every district we examined.

Yet there are a few bright spots in the dismal dismissal landscape, and District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) is one such place.

DCPS scored six out of a possible ten points in our study, meaning that the process for dismissing an ineffective veteran teacher in DCPS is significantly easier than in most districts. (Only three of the other districts we studied make it easier to release ineffective teachers: Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Burlington School District, and Mesa Public Schools.)

In particular, the nation’s capital has four policies worthy of praise:

First, the district takes teacher evaluation seriously. D.C. became one of the first districts in the country to evaluate teachers based in part on student test scores when it adopted a revamped teacher evaluation system (IMPACT) in 2009. Under IMPACT, teachers are rated “Highly Effective,” “Effective,” “Developing,” “Minimally Effective,” or “Ineffective” based on student achievement data (up to 50 percent of certain teachers’ IMPACT scores), student surveys, and several other measures of instructional practice and performance. And D.C. uses these ratings to differentiate teacher performance better than most locales, which still rate the vast majority of educators as “Effective” or “Highly Effective.” In 2015–16, DCPS rated one in five teachers (20 percent) as one of the bottom three categories.

Second, the district is also seriously committed to exiting ineffective teachers from the classroom (teachers rated “Ineffective” once, “Minimally Effective” twice, or “Developing” three years in a row can be dismissed). According to DCPS staff, between 2011 and 2016, over five hundred teachers were dismissed for unsatisfactory performance (representing between 1 and 3 percent of teachers each year). Equally important, DCPS retains 92 percent of its “Highly Effective” and “Effective” teachers. The system also focuses on rewarding strong performance; “Highly Effective” teachers are eligible for performance bonuses up to $25,000, as well as base salary increases.

Third, all teachers in DCPS are probationary, meaning teachers cannot earn tenure or the equivalent. As we describe in our study, restrictive tenure policies make it much more difficult for districts to dismiss poor-performing veteran teachers. (In contrast to D.C., in seventeen of the twenty-five districts evaluated in our study, state law still allows teachers to earn tenure and keep it regardless of performance on the job.)

Finally, DCPS’s timeline for dismissing ineffective teachers is fairly straightforward and efficient. All teachers must be observed one to three times annually, and persistently underperforming teachers are dismissed. (Meanwhile, veteran teachers in places like New York City and Shelby County, TN, must be observed a minimum of eight or nine times before they can be released, increasing the risk of a procedural violation by school administrators.) If a teacher in D.C. chooses to file a grievance or appeal a performance evaluation, that process can take an additional six months, excluding arbitration (though DCPS teachers do not remain on the payroll or in the classroom during that time.) Yet this process is far more expeditious than places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, where it can take five years to even assign a teacher his first ineffective rating.

Despite these four laudable policies, however, D.C.’s teacher dismissal policies still leave room for improvement. As stated in the district’s agreement with the Washington Teachers’ Union, “employees maintain their rights to appeal below average or unsatisfactory performance evaluations.” Teachers can also appeal dismissal decisions more than once and to authorities beyond the school district, first to the Superintendent, then with the D.C. Office of Employee Appeals. While this is the case in most districts, four of the districts studied limit teachers to a single internal appeal (Burlington, Indianapolis, Miami-Dade, and Milwaukee), greatly reducing the time and expense required for dismissal.

Given the serious implications for students, it’s clear that teachers should not have the right to indefinite employment regardless of performance. Yet local policymakers and school leaders across the nation still face fierce opposition when attempting to reform teacher evaluation and tenure policies, and dismissing underperforming teachers remains far too time-consuming and expensive.

D.C. is one encouraging example of a district that thoughtfully approaches teacher quality and employment decisions, balancing the rights of students to a quality education and the rights of teachers to due process. As Arnold Shober concludes in his recent report on teacher dismissal in D.C., the district’s “efforts show that relentless attention to teacher performance yields dividends for students.” Here’s hoping that new Chancellor Antwan Wilson doesn’t upset that balance as he attempts to negotiate a new contract with the Washington Teachers’ Union this year.