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Teaching District Story: Washington, D.C.

Focus on Effective Teaching Helps Raise the Bar in D.C.

Over the past decade, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) has faced severe enrollment decline–from 65,000 students to 45,000. As a result, the district took a hard look at their teachers–proven to most directly impact student achievement–and implemented a rigorous evaluation system to identify and keep the best, weed out the worst, and develop those in between. DCPS also created a career ladder to help retain their best teachers and a compensation plan tied to effective teaching. It’s still early, but DCPS students are starting to show signs of improvement.

District Snapshot

  • Urban setting
  • 123 schools
  • 10,000 teachers
  • 45,000 K-12 students
  • Ethnically and economically diverse
  • 75% free and reduced lunches
  • 80% African-American
  • 10% Hispanic
  • 10% Caucasian
  • >50% of DC students attend charter schools


After years of declining enrollment, D.C. Public Schools knew they had to make bold changes to improve the quality of their education. “We had high schools where just 9% of students were proficient or advanced on standardized tests. We were setting these students up for failure in life and we needed to do something,” explains Cynthia Robinson-Rivers, Director of Teacher Retention and Recognition.

In 2008, the district didn’t know who their high performing or low performing teachers were, other than anecdotally. They had an evaluation system that didn’t accurately delineate their best teachers from their worst and rated 95% of teachers as ‘meets or exceeds expectations.’ “Unlike many factors that affect students and their ability to achieve at high levels, such as poverty and their parents’ educational background, teacher quality is something we can actually control,” adds Robinson-Rivers. “Our goal was to have a wonderful, dedicated teacher in front of each of our students.”



To improve the quality of their teaching staff, DCPS implemented IMPACT – a rigorous teacher evaluation system, based on a 400-point scale. The rubric measures effective teaching based on 9 criteria–from making sure content is provided in a variety of ways because students learn differently, to being sure to question students carefully to gauge whether or not they understand. The extent to which a teacher creates a positive, welcoming classroom environment is also assessed as well as how effectively teachers use their time. Teachers who are not in tested grades are primarily evaluated on classroom observations. Teachers who are in tested grades are measured on student test scores, teacher-generated assessments, observations, and their commitment to the school community – whether or not they help out with aftercare, for instance. (Learn more about DCPS IMPACT here.)

“In the past, teachers could read the newspaper and sit at their desk while their students did worksheets, but you can’t do that if an outside evaluator or their principal is making an unannounced observation at any point. The results of that observation have high stakes consequences.”

“Teachers also have points deducted for lack of professionalism–basic things we expect any teacher to do like show up on time, not have unexcused absences and maintain a respectful demeanor with colleagues,” says Robinson-Rivers. If a teacher is rated between 100 and 174, that teacher is “ineffective” and separated from the system at the end of the year. If a teacher is rated between 175 and 249, he or she is “minimally effective,” and needs to achieve a 250 or above after two years, or they are let go. And teachers who score 250 or above are the district’s top-performers and Robinson-Rivers and her team do everything they can to retain them. “We are now in our fourth year of IMPACT, and the most fundamental thing it has provided is information.” With information they can take action. Now that they have a clear definition of teaching expectations, and high stakes for not meeting them, the quality of teaching has improved across the board.

Job-embedded professional development

Professional development for DCPS teachers used to be provided in a lecture hall, “But adults learn best and enact change in their practice with job-embedded professional development and ongoing support,” explains Robinson-Rivers. That’s why DCPS decided to use instructional coaches–literacy or math experts–who work with teachers as a group or individually, depending on what’s needed. “It’s been very helpful for teachers to have instruction be part of their daily job instead of some place they have to go,” adds Robinson-Rivers.

Project LIFT

Once DCPS’ best teachers were identified, teacher retention became critical. “We sent out a satisfaction survey, held focus group sessions, and made sure we understood what our best teachers cared most about. The number one factor was school leadership, but they also wanted a clearer map for where they could be in five years if they stayed with the district,” explains Robinson-Rivers. As a result, DCPS developed LIFT, Leadership Initiative For Teachers, a career ladder that identifies where a teacher’s profession can go. Teachers also talked about compensation. “We knew we needed to align compensation with performance so that if you’re a young teacher, but doing a great job, you’ll get paid what you deserve.”


“Five years ago, a teacher might not have explained to his or her students what they should know by the end of the lesson, which is critical,” explains Robinson-Rivers. “I don’t think you could walk into a single DCPS classroom today and find a teacher who doesn’t have a very explicit objective written out.

“Today, instead of a ‘sage on the stage’ you’ll see teachers giving a brief intro, guiding practice, and leading independent work where students are in groups.”

The distribution for teacher evaluations is also more realistic, with 15-18% of teachers rated minimally effective or ineffective with the new evaluation system, and only 16% receiving the highest rating between 2009 and 2011.

“The extremely negative or negligent behaviors that we saw in 2007 and 2008 are gone. After two years of IMPACT, our coaches came to us and said, ‘the level of personal engagement and interaction the teachers have with their students has changed tremendously,’ so we know we’re on the right track.” DCPS now has a rigorous hiring process for bringing in new teachers to make sure that they don’t repeat past problems. The district has big goals for 2017 and they’re hoping their new approach will help them get there:

  • 70% student proficiency overall
  • 40% increases in 40 lowest performing schools
  • 75% graduation rate (53 percent today)
  • 90% of students “like” school
  • Increase in enrollment: DCPS wants to be the school system of choice in D.C.

“The work that ERS has done for us has been extraordinarily useful. In designing LIFT, we had to have a really solid understanding of the salary numbers. ERS was instrumental in helping us figure out what our numbers would look like, not just next year, but in five years. And whether or not, quite frankly, we could afford it. We have performance pay where teachers’ salaries are driven entirely by how well they do in the classroom and how effective they are. Having a partner who can tell us whether or not we can afford it was critical. ERS did that for us."
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