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Grading DC's Teachers: Michelle Rhee and IMPACT

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Last week Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the Washington, DC Public Schools, quietly rolled out IMPACT, a new $4 million system that will be used to evaluate the district's teachers.

The story didn't receive much media coverage outside of DC, which surprised me. IMPACT, along with the new DCPS "Teaching and Learning Framework" that surrounds it, has the potential to become a very big deal. It's precisely the kind of teacher evaluation program that will play a major role in the Obama administration's Race To The Top initiative. One can't predict the future, but with the national spotlight on DC's public schools, what goes down in DC could be a model for districts across the country.

Meanwhile, reactions in DC ranged from fear to excitement.

Why are people afraid? At the most pragmatic level, IMPACT will likely be one of the tools Chancellor Rhee uses to get rid of ineffective teachers. Although she's softened her aggressive tone, finding and replacing underperforming teachers is still at the core of her reform plan. IMPACT gives her a new tool to do just that.

That, understandably, has a lot of people, from presidents of teacher's unions to rank-and-file educators, scared. And the fact that the city, citing budget concerns, just laid off over 200 teachers isn't helping matters.

But many others - including me - are also excited about IMPACT, in part because it looks like a great system. I'm no expert on teacher evaluation, but I'm impressed with the pieces of the system DCPS has made public. Even more exciting are the names of two people involved in its creation: Jason Kamras and Jon Saphier.

Kamras was the 2005 National Teacher of the Year. Coincidentally, he spent eight years at a middle school near the high school where I taught in DC. His former students raved about him; a friend of mine visited his school and told me Kamras had one of the best-run classrooms he'd ever seen.

Jon Saphier, on the other hand, specializes in developing great teachers and is one of the country's foremost authorities on teaching. The Skillful Teacher system, which he created, is one of the best teacher education programs around. He and Kamras are exactly the people you want behind a system like IMPACT.

I do have some fears, though, and they center on the most important question: how will IMPACT affect the children of DC? The answer, I think, depends on how the system is used.

For example, if IMPACT becomes part of a 360-degree professional development framework that helps teachers perform at a high level, ensures they have the resources they need to do so, and then holds them accountable, that will help the district's students. Rhee, by the way, has stated that something along those lines is her goal.

However, if it's used primarily to identify, document, and dismiss ineffective teachers, as some of Rhee's opponents predict, then it could create an atmosphere of fear that does the students as much harm as good. Anyone who's worked in a bureaucracy knows that well-laid plans can become impersonal administrative behemoths. A perceptive DCPS teacher hit the nail on the head when he said of IMPACT, "I like the simplicity of it. But I hope it doesn't turn into a counting game."

I couldn't agree more. Ultimately, IMPACT's impact will depend on the people who implement the system: their goals, values, and personal approaches to education. Let's hope they give the students and the teachers of DC cause for more hope, not more fear.