Re-Thinking Education Reform

New Playbook Profiles D.C.'s Messy Journey to Education Reform

While the public schools in the District of Columbia have generated ample headlines for outright malfeasance and publicly displayed poor judgment, it has also been held up as a "national model for education reformers," as the Washington Post once expressed it. Now an education think tank has issued a report about District of Columbia Public Schools to profile its work and to draw important lessons for both educators and policymakers.

"A Policymaker's Playbook: Transforming Public School Teaching in the Nation's Capital," produced by FutureEd, explores how DCPS has converted teaching "into a performance-based profession" over the last 10 years. FutureEd is an independent organization with a focus on education issues that works out of Georgetown University's School of Public Policy.

The report drew on hundreds of hours of interviews with past and present DCPS leaders, staff, principals, teachers, union officials and researchers. The story of transformation began with the hiring of controversial Chancellor Michelle Rhee in 2007 (and departure in 2010) and built on work introduced during those years and subsequently improved on. The results, according to the researchers, have "effectively transformed teaching in [the] district into a performance-based profession that provides recognition, responsibility, collegiality, support and significant compensation -- features that national policy experts have long sought but only partially achieved."

In early days, a big part of the transformation effort revolved around the use of IMPACT, an ambitious teacher performance-measurement system that was launched at the start of the 2009-2010 school year without any pilot testing or sufficient training for school leaders and teachers. While the educators approved of the new teaching standards introduced under IMPACT along with the idea of identifying and removing "weak teachers" from D.C. classrooms, " the inadequate training, rushed implementation, and high stakes [of IMPACT] left many teachers anxious and angry." It didn't help that Rhee had already fired "several hundred teachers" before the launch of the system and expected to drop even more over the coming year.

While local voters eventually swept Rhee patron Mayor Adrian Fenty out of office, taking the beleaguered chancellor with him, IMPACT stayed in place, but this time with a new chancellor determined to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the new evaluation system. By 2012-2013, major changes had been introduced, including elimination of whole-school value ratings and new approaches for evaluating new teachers and low-performers.

Tweaks to IMPACT's use as well as new ways of measuring teacher and principal effectiveness have continued to be introduced into the district, alongside new pay structures; changes to educator recruiting, hiring and retention processes; continued attention to what's working and what isn't; and the introduction of new systems for curriculum addressing Common Core standards.

That whole messy process along the way is what the report has captured. "Generations of reformers have sought to transform public school teaching into the true profession it deserves to be," said FutureEd Director, Thomas Toch, in his introduction to the report. "The District of Columbia has produced a compelling blueprint for achieving that goal."

Support for the project was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Joyce Foundation.

The 44-page playbook is openly available on the FutureEd website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.