Research Shows Firing Teachers Based on Performance Can Actually Work

by Paul Crookston

The former mayor of Washington, D.C., Adrian Fenty, and Michelle Rhee, the school chancellor he installed, took heat for their aggressive school reforms, but a new study vindicates their controversial evaluations of teachers. From 2007 to 2010, Rhee implemented a student-focused teacher-evaluation system called IMPACT, which relies heavily on student performance to judge teachers. The city still uses the system, and new data indicate that it has helped keep the best teachers and improve academic achievement.

IMPACT is a system in which teachers are rated annually. It’s based half on student achievement and half on four other job-performance factors. Teachers rated at the bottom of a five-point scale are deemed ineffective and fired, and ones at the top receive raises and bonuses. This week, the American Enterprise Institute released a report by Arnold F. Shober suggesting that removing underperforming teachers and installing new ones has improved student outcomes, and that monetary rewards for excellence have led to higher retention rates of the best teachers.

Prioritizing students’ needs above those of teachers constitutes the revolutionary idea at the core of IMPACT. Fenty was given the newfound power to enact standards that were not subject to collective-bargaining negotiations with teachers, making unions unable to weaken the new rules. Many teachers scoffed at the notion that they would be held professionally responsible for how students performed, and they thought it was madness to jettison peer evaluations of fellow teachers in favor of student evaluations.

The political conflict resulting from IMPACT and other reforms may have contributed to Fenty’s being voted out of office, but students are reaping the benefits of Rhee’s reforms during Fenty’s tenure. IMPACT and other standards made it easy to demonize Rhee as “aggressive” because her changes were affecting teachers’ once-comfortable job situation. When you replace teachers, it takes time to see improvement in student outcomes, but teachers can voice their displeasure without delay. That Rhee was able to make changes at all depended on teachers’ unions not having veto power.

Now student test scores are up and more good teachers are staying in Washington, which imparts a valuable lesson: Evaluating teachers based on student performance can work. Should reformers start using IMPACT in other districts around the country? Systems have to be tailored to their environment, and that brings us to another aspect of D.C.’s reform that the author mentions: its “robust school choice market.” The power of parents to choose where to send students to school goes hand-in-hand with giving schools the power to hire and fire based on whether students learn. Simply put, schools should judge teachers based on whether students are learning — because that is why children go to school.

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