Modernizing Teaching Helps Students, Too
There has been a lot of talk over the last decade about how to provide every student in this country with an effective teacher. While some of the conversation has focused on overhauling teacher preparation or giving students options to attend better schools, many districts have instead chosen to spend the last few years implementing new teacher evaluation and career ladder systems that aim to give teachers a better sense of how they’re doing while also rewarding those who demonstrate effectiveness with leadership opportunities and increased pay. One district in particular, DC Public Schools (DCPS), has been a pioneer in these efforts by asking teachers to adopt IMPACT, a groundbreaking evaluation system that measures teachers partially on their students’ test scores in exchange for promotional opportunities—including the chance to earn up to $20,000 in bonuses.
IMPACT is now entering its seventh year, yet controversy surrounding the use of this type of modernized personnel system lingers to this day. In particular, there continues to be significant chatter about whether or not evaluation systems of this kind serve any benefit—leading some to push states and districts to roll back progress they’ve already made in this direction given some of the new state flexibilities allowed in the newly-reauthorized federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. But a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) indicates that backtracking now would be a mistake—as evidence shows that taking steps to modernize evaluation and career ladder systems can pay out huge dividends for teachers and students alike.
The NBER study examined the impact of IMPACT from 2009-2012, and found that the evaluation system’s ability to accurately identify and encourage low-performing teachers to leave the classroom led to a statistically significant increase in student achievement, adding the equivalent of around four months of additional learning in reading and math. On average, the study found that 46 percent of low-performers left each year, compared to the only 13 percent of those rated either “effective” or “highly effective.” In essence, IMPACT has provided DCPS with a systematic way to remove poor performers from the classroom—who tend to be concentrated in the highest poverty schools—ultimately opening the door for more effective teachers to have access to the students who need them the most. And filling those vacancies with high-caliber candidates is a real possibility for DCPS, because it has also spent years developing a competitive performance-based salary structure and career ladder system to accompany its evaluations—allowing the district to attract the best and brightest from around the country.
But the benefits associated with modernizing the teaching profession don’t come as a surprise. Third Way’s own polling of high-achieving Millennials found that it is exactly this type of personnel structure—one that acknowledges and rewards talent—that would make them want to give teaching a second look. Districts like DCPS are proving that taking the time to put in place a strong career ladder system that escalates pay and responsibility can pay huge dividends. Replicating this type of system could be a huge benefit to places like Nevada, Oklahoma, or Indiana, which are all experiencing severe teacher shortages.
Policymakers from all over the country should be looking at DCPS’ willingness to transform its outdated pay and promotion systems as a shining example of what is possible if they choose to focus on modernizing teaching as a lever for change. The NBER study also demonstrates that some teacher turnover isn’t bad, especially if it leads to more students getting the shot to have a qualified teacher in front of them every year. And while creating a brand new system like IMPACT may not be possible for every school district in the country, if states and districts want to get serious about elevating the teaching profession and improving student achievement, they can’t afford not to try.