Transforming Public School Teaching in the Nation’s Capital

By: Maria Salciccioli, Senior Policy Analyst

One of the most interesting conversations I attended this summer was the report release event for FutureEd’s A Policymaker’s Playbook: Transforming Public School Teaching in the Nation’s Capital. The event opened with remarks from Council Chair Mendelson, Council Education Chair Grosso, and Interim Deputy Mayor Smith. Thomas Toch then presented some of the findings from his report. He said that the Rhee era, under Chancellors Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson, was marked by a “transformation of the profession from low-status occupation with weak standards to performance-based professional providing recognitions, responsibility, collegiality, support, and significant compensation.” He noted that these improvements were actually what Michelle Rhee’s critics were looking for, and no other districts have accomplished them to the same extent. The results were achieved through initiatives that unions and Rhee’s other adversaries opposed, but also those they supported:

  • The IMPACT evaluation system
  • Performance pay and staffing (top salaries rose in the 10-year period from $87,000 to $132,000 for 10-month schools)
  • The LIFT career ladder, which provides leadership opportunities for classroom teachers
  • School-based professional development through the LEAP system

The result was a greater number of new hires with teaching experience (from 66% to 84%), retention of 94% of highly effective teachers and only 49% of minimally effective teachers (who only make up 5% of the teaching force). However, Toch acknowledged that there are still troubling facts and trends: only 15% of black students scored proficient on PARCC reading assessments, LEAP implementation is uneven, zoned high schools are a major challenge, and poverty is a formidable barrier. He concluded by saying that despite these issues, schools are much better than they were before the reform era.

At that point, the event transitioned into a panel discussion, with Toch as moderator. The panelists were:

  • Eric Bethel, Principal, Turner Elementary School
  • Elizabeth Davis, President, Washington Teachers Union
  • Brian Pick, Chief of Teaching and Learning, District of Columbia Public Schools
  • Ross Wiener, Vice President, Aspen Institute

Toch asked Davis her thoughts on the talent management system (Davis felt he’d misrepresented its quality, and added that the achievement gap between African Americans and white students grew from 17 points to 44 under Rhee and Henderson), questioned Pick about what he’d learned from leading education reform work at DCPS (he said he’d learned how to create a floor for quality without creating a ceiling), what DCPS should focus on more closely (high schools’ success), and where DCPS should go next. Davis said induction, and indicators for school success beyond test scores; Pick suggested principal quality and the instructional core, defined as, “the interaction of great teachers and school leaders, students and their families, and the content they’re learning” by Dick Elmore. Bethel suggested a focus on specific school communities’ needs, and Toch suggested LEAP fidelity, because his research showed that schools that implemented LEAP with high fidelity had four times the PARCC score gains of schools that did not implement it evenly.

I think the report will provide important insight to education stakeholders in DC, and I appreciate the outside look at DC’s approach and the focus on teacher policy, given the importance of teachers in improving schools. I began my professional career in 2009 as a teacher in DCPS but was laid off six weeks after I started due to a sweeping budget cut from central office, so much of what Davis said resonated with me – teachers need to feel like professionals, and ongoing induction and planning time are critical. I was also really troubled by the widening achievement gaps in a school district that serves a majority-minority population. However, I was impressed to hear about the increasing awareness that teachers and school leaders need targeted support and opportunities to provide input on policies that affect them, and I was glad to hear that DC is improving its standing among other urban districts. I hope DCPS will heed Smith’s words and refuse to feel satisfied until all students, regardless of race and income, are benefitting from the policies DCPS has instituted.

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