City on a Hill: Students know best

February 7, 2013

Over the past few years, it’s been difficult to be sure about anything at District of Columbia Public Schools. An unprecedented number of principals, teachers, and central office staff have come and gone since Michelle Rhee burst into town in 2007 with a slew of new policies—chief among them a new teacher evaluation system called IMPACT and a plan to close over 20 under-enrolled schools. She left back in 2010, but current Chancellor Kaya Henderson (SFS ‘92, G ‘07) has kept the reforms rolling with two subsequent revisions to IMPACT, more school consolidations, and new graduation requirements. If there’s one constant, it’s change.

Another might be antipathy. While the DCPS reforms have made it the most talked-about school district in the country, they’ve also generated a lot of anger in the city. Opposition to Rhee’s school closures and authoritarian leadership style helped push Mayor Vincent Gray over the top in the mayoral race of 2010, and now Empower DC, a local advocacy group, is suing DCPS over Henderson’s decision to shutter 15 more schools. Whether the closings are good policy or not, it seems clear the district needs to do something to regain public confidence, and that’s why it’s puzzling to me that the chancellor has been so mum about yet another new reform.

Another revision to IMPACT, this new policy would grant students the power to evaluate their own teachers by answering a survey and then link their opinions to hiring and firing decisions made by DCPS. The idea is rather new, but it’s gaining traction in educational circles. If Henderson would take it to the public, this change could help show parents that they and their students have a genuine say about the decisions in both the principal’s office and Central Office.

Currently, DCPS teachers are evaluated based on student test scores on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System and a number of observations by principals and “master educators.” The scheme is a marked improvement over the initial IMPACT system, but it is still plagued with issues. Test scores are a clumsy quantitative tool for ascertaining teacher performance, even in a value-added system like IMPACT that takes into account a student’s educational starting point. It also invites cheating—teachers telling students the answers to the test or simply changing incorrect responses themselves, both crimes in which DCPS has been implicated.

Observations put the human element back into evaluation, but they have their own problems. DCPS teachers commonly worry personal issues with administrators can affect their observation grade and put their jobs in jeopardy. Bringing in master educators helps to balance the system out, but it’s difficult to ascertain the true culture of a classroom in three visits or less.

Enter student surveys into the fray. Much of the confidence in them stems from the work of Harvard education professor Ronald Ferguson, who helped author a landmark study on teacher evaluations by the Gates Foundation. In it, over 3,000 teachers were assessed in seven cities, and their students were asked to grade their teachers in extended surveys. The results were striking. Not only were the teachers the students liked best also the ones who raised test scores the most, but students’ perceptions were remarkably uniform. As the study put it,

“Students seem to know effective teaching when they experience it: student perceptions in one class are related to the achievement gains in other classes taught by the same teacher.”

This may be understatement. As The Atlantic’s Amanda Ripley noted in her October 2012 article “Why Kids Should Grade Teachers,” math teachers rated highest by their students in surveys can deliver over six months more learning than teachers with the lowest student ratings.

What’s more, student surveys proved to be more effective in measuring teacher performance than any other evaluation technique.

Of course, students can have a grudge against a teacher just like administrators, but with so many of them taking the survey it tends to balance out. Henderson has already made the survey used by the Gates study available to teachers for use on a voluntary basis, but she was coy about adding it into IMPACT. “You gotta do it right,” Henderson told Ripley. “Otherwise, it will torpedo our chances of doing it again.”

That’s all well and good, but Henderson should broadcast this innovation sooner rather than later. It’d be good for DCPS, taking some focus off the contentious closures. But more importantly, the public needs to know about any coming changes to teacher evaluations so they have time to comment and critique.

For a school district that prides itself in its improving transparency and dialogue with the community, it’s shocking there hasn’t been more discussion. Henderson and her staff should fast-walk student surveys going forward. They don’t just deserve a good headline—the District deserves a teacher evaluation scheme that works.

Submit your survey to Gavin at

Gavin Bade
Gavin Bade is Managing Editor of The Georgetown Voice


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