JONATHAN COHN JULY 26, 2010
Last week, D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee announced that she had fired 241 teachers, including 165 who received low ratings under the District’s new teacher evaluation system, called IMPACT. As I wrote on Friday, the firings represent a big step for education reform. Teacher evaluations across the country are badly constructed and executed, as are the processes used to remove bad teachers. D.C. is leading the way in improving both.
But this story runs deeper. Rhee is at the heart of D.C.’s heated mayoral race, between incumbent Adrian Fenty and City Council Chairman Vincent Gray. Fenty, who hired Rhee, remains her most vocal supporter. Gray has not indicated what he would do with Rhee if he won, in an apparent attempt to please both those who love Rhee and those who love to hate her. (A Washington Post poll from January showed that 44 percent of D.C. residents disapprove of the job she’s doing; among black residents, disapproval hit 62 percent.) Not surprisingly, Rhee recently hinted in two interviews, including one with the Post, that she’d leave her job if Gray ousts Fenty.
So how did the two candidates react when Rhee announced the firings last week? Fenty stood by Rhee, yet again: “As Mayor, I will not sit still, and I will not be satisfied until a highly effective teacher is in every classroom. Today's action puts us one step closer to that goal.” Gray, perhaps just as predictably, waffled: According to the Post, he said he "wanted to look further at the basis for the dismissals" and noted that there is "still controversy" surrounding IMPACT. (That last part is certainly true: A recent poll by the Washington Teachers’ Union found that 52 percent of 1,000 respondents—there are about 4,000 teachers in D.C. Public Schools—said they don’t understand what is required of them to do well according to new system.)
What, then, is Gray’s position on how to assess and improve teacher quality? To find out, I revisited his platform, which he released a few weeks ago. Gray says he supports “remov[ing] low-performing teachers from the system.” But he hasn’t endorsed IMPACT. Rather, he says he would “[m]ove swiftly to implement the independent evaluation of the current IMPACT evaluation system” and “[e]nsure that we have a fair and research-based evaluation system that holds our teachers accountable but also provides multiple strategies for assessing student growth (e.g., teacher portfolios) and teacher effectiveness.”
In other words, Gray hasn’t taken a firm position on IMPACT, just as he hasn’t taken a firm position on Rhee or her firings. If he wins, Gray could keep the evaluation system and Rhee. Or he could get rid of both. Surely D.C. voters deserve a more definitive answer.