The Impact of IMPACT

In recent months, so many reformers have come down with a case of the shakes, fretting about everything under the sun.

There are those who list the supposed litany of missteps made by our movement’s leaders. Then there are those who offer expansive mea culpas for all of the grievances thrown their way.

But no specific policy topic has caused more reformer repentance than educator evaluations. These new systems, we’re told by our erstwhile comrades-in-arms, have infuriated teachers, corrupted the formative nature of observations, and so much more. In fact, Mike Petrilli just cited these new evaluation systems as the easiest-to-criticize element in reform’s agenda.

Hopefully, the new, very encouraging study of Washington, D.C.’s IMPACT will coax some of my panicky friends out from under their covers.

I’ve long been a huge fan of IMPACT. It’s an educator-evaluation system that dramatically improves observations, makes use of student performance, rewards excellence, and has meaningful consequences for persistence low performance.

And it turns out—sorry Chicken Littles!— it’s working.

The study by Dee and Wyckoff found several positive effects. Maybe most importantly, it’s bringing about greater effectiveness across the board. It’s helping struggling teachers improve, and, remarkably, even causing those at the top to get better and better. In the words of one of the coauthors, “We find strong evidence that this system causes meaningful increases in teacher performance.”

It’s also helping to encourage the lowest-performing teachers to voluntarily leave the classroom. Ever better, those hired to replace those exiting perform at a higher level. In other words, IMPACT appears to have set off a continuous improvement cycle.

Moreover, the system is helping to retain the very best teachers: 92 percent of teachers rated “highly effective” stay in DCPS (compared to 59 percent of those rated minimally effective).

Those inclined to dismiss IMPACT as simply an incentive-laden, market-based approach to improving our teaching corps might be disappointed. As one of the coauthors explains, the system provides the necessary tools for teachers to improve: “IMPACT appears to have been comparatively successful in defining what teachers need to do in order to improve their scores and providing corresponding supports. Evaluations and incentives are likely to have little effect if teachers lack the knowledge and support to act on the information the evaluations provide.”

I’ve been troubled by my reform colleagues’ recent bouts of self-doubt. I’m all in favor of self-examination and course corrections. But, in my opinion, our community has gone overboard, shivering and quaking at every accusation of “privatization” and “corporate reform.” We picked a fight with an establishment that wasn’t working for kids; of course it’s going to strike back.

We’ve desperately needed a moment to invoke Margaret Thatcher’s scolding of President George H. W. Bush on the eve of the first Gulf War: “This is no time to go wobbly, George.”

Maybe this is that moment.

Reformers: An educator-evaluation system passionately pilloried by forces of the status quo is working.

Stop waving the white flag.

Man the ramparts.

-Andy Smarick

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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