To Leave the IMPACT Behind, District Educators Should Let Go of Merit Pay

Currently, DC Public School educators are evaluated through IMPACT. The system was developed in 2009 under former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee, a union buster appointed following the revocation of decision-making power of DC’s democratically elected school board. Emboldened by DC’s right-leaning Mayor Adrian Fenty, Rhee’s implementation of the IMPACT system was tied to an additional set of experimental changes which would go on to confuse DC’s public school system. Though touted as “reforms,” these changes were mostly designed to disempower educators and shutter buildings, rather than build up educators and truly rehabilitate struggling schools.

In addition to instituting IMPACT, Rhee severely reduced educator rights such as tenure (which contrary to anti-union messaging is simply the right to due process), orchestrated a firing spree which axed 241 teachers and put 737 additional school employees on notice, and closed over 20 schools throughout her term as Chancellor. Although Rhee was eventually ousted from her position in 2010 following aggressive pushback from the public, DC educators and parents are still dealing with the chaotic series of policies imposed by Rhee’s legion of school privateers. IMPACT is just one of the open wounds left from that era, and it’s the one that DC educators and allies must be willing to heal.

Grappling with IMPACT's impact

IMPACT has gone through slight modifications since inception, but its core structure remains. Though originally touted as a way to incentivize stronger performance from educators, a recent study on IMPACT’s effects and perceptions out of American University confirms the lack of faith many educators have in the policy. The study reported that “many teachers and school leaders perceived that IMPACT created an unhealthy environment of distrust, fear, and competitiveness in schools that trickles down into the classroom. These opinions held true across teacher effectiveness ratings, race, and Ward

Though the system is supposed to measure performance, an educator’s IMPACT score is heavily determined by student assessments. For many educators, 35% of their rating is based on student scores from the standardized PARCC test and another 15% on assessments outside of PARCC, making 50% of an educator’s overall rating based on student assessments. This can create a dehumanizing instructional culture where curriculum is focused on test preparation more than anything else. It also produces significant inconsistencies in ratings, as educators who work with students who face the brunt of capitalistic precarity are implicitly punished for working with populations who need help the most. This is pointed out in page 45 of the American University report, which states that “teachers in Title I schools generally scored lower than in non-Title I schools,” Title I schools being those that receive supplemental funding for serving a large low-income population.

The remaining majority of an educator’s IMPACT rating comes from unscheduled administrator observations, a practice that can be subjective and used to punish educators who speak out against certain policies or implementations. These observations can also be subject to race and gender-based biases, as found by the American University report (page 45): “Female teachers consistently score higher than male teachers, and White, Asian, and American Indian teachers consistently score higher than Black, Hispanic or Latino, or Other/Unknown race teachers.”

Unlike many other districts, the Washington Teachers’ Union’s current contract states that the evaluation system cannot be negotiated. With enough pressure, this can change; but in order to negotiate a more collaborative, fair and learning-focused evaluation system, DCPS employees must abandon one of the linchpins that hold IMPACT in place — merit pay.

Merit pay is a reliable weapon in the union-buster's armory

Merit pay for DCPS educators comes in the form of significant bonuses to employees who receive “highly effective” ratings under the IMPACT evaluation system. Merit pay is alluring, as bonuses can be seen as rewarding hard work - as merit pay boosters often purport. Regardless of whether or not the incentive structure works properly, many educators factor in these bonuses when calculating their income.

However, even if we could negotiate a better evaluation system while keeping merit pay, educators, the practice bolsters the underlying ideology that informs IMPACT, union-busters, and privatizers who have been trying to shake-down school systems across the country. As Lois Weiner, teacher union activist and academic, explained in her book The Future of Our Schools:

By creating salary differentials based on performance standards which school officials determine, merit proposals enhance the power of administrators and diminish the teacher’s autonomy. In giving administrators the authority to financially reward supporters of their policies with salary increases, and conversely punish dissent by withholding merit allowances, merit pay makes teachers quite literally pay for opposing administrative and systemic short-comings that prevent student achievement (The Future of Our Schools, “Democratizing the Schools,” 123).

Like many that have infiltrated public schools over the last decade, merit pay is an idea which assumes the superiority of market-based approaches to delivering public services. Boiled down, merit pay is just another system designed to strip public services of democratic safeguards and turn them into privately controlled profit generators.

These market-based solutions operate under the condescendingly simplistic idea that employees will be better educators with a carrot on a stick in front of them. The approach suggests that public services would be better if they were run more like businesses. But public services, and especially education, are not meant to operate under profit motives. They are meant to be services based on the humanistic idea that there are some things that individuals in our society should be entitled to – such as the right to a wholistic education – that should be free, accessible, and equitable to all. Turning our public services over to the whims and greed and profit motive is a recipe for disaster that we must reject.

In essence, merit pay is another form of union busting. The policy’s union-busting qualities are most overt in the fact that if educators accept IMPACT bonuses, they lose significant protections if their position is lost due to enrollment the next year and they cannot find another job in DCPS, which enables more insecurity within the workforce. As stated in the Weiner quote, merit pay practices strip away democracy by putting the risk of monetary loss on the shoulders of teachers opposed to the status-quo.

When so much relies on subjective evaluation, bonuses can be withheld from those who are more critical of harmful policies and practices, creating a monetary risk for speaking out. It concentrates power at the top, as opposed to empowering those working closest with students and the students themselves. And it fosters competition – rather than solidarity and collaboration – between educators which makes it harder for teachers and support staff to come together and unite through their union.

These flaws, paired with the fact that administrators are also pressured to show particular results in order to pass their own evaluations, creates a system ripe for bias and manipulation.  In the end, educators lose autonomy and the limited democratic control of their workplaces that currently exists. This observation was captured in page 28 of the American University study, which reported on the effects IMPACT has on teaching style: “Many teacher participants described in interviews that the way IMPACT was tied to their livelihoods (salary, bonus) led to unintended consequences, such as significant teacher stress, fear, anxiety, and a lack of opportunity for growth or innovation. Teachers suggested that the extrinsic reward and punishment system undermined intrinsic motivation and professional growth, and harmed relationships with school leaders.”

Teachers should look for a pay-system that fosters cooperation, not competition

Accountability is not fostered through profit incentive and job insecurity imposed from the top, especially in the inherently political and humanistic role of teaching. Compensation is incredibly important, but tying bonus pay to unobjective systems bolsters the anti-educator status quo. Instead, we could consider reallocating funding dedicated to merit pay to boost and reform tenure-based pay systems which could help address issues in teacher retention. Tenure and seniority, which have been slandered in popular culture, were created to protect teachers while rewarding skill and dedication. Experience and education-based pay provides a simple and objective method for determining salary, and they act as safeguards from a system that would otherwise fire experienced educators in order to hire cheaper (and less experienced) labor.

Developing a pay system that holds educators accountable while rewarding professional growth is critical. However, this must be done in a way that does not further union-busting efforts and instill top-down control on educators.

Under the current system, educators are held accountable to standards and metrics designed to satisfy that market-based approached to student success, rather than being tailored to address the educational needs of the communities actually served. As a result, educators with potential who need more support and time to hone their craft are often pushed aside or leave in disgust, which contributes to high turnover and a continual influx of less experienced teachers who do not remain for the long haul.

The fight for schools controlled by the communities they serve (and the workers who actually run them) must include ridding districts of market-based, top-down policies that alienate educators from one another and reduce education to dehumanized practices. In an era where communities often distrust school systems, proper accountability can help rebuild trust and ensure educators are growing and meeting the crucial responsibilities they have toward children and society, but WTU members must recognize that merit pay is holding a flawed and alienating evaluation system in place. We must fight to develop a new system that is fairer, truly supportive and more responsive to our communities, and built with proper democratic cooperation. Anything less risks continuing DCPS’ focus on meeting standards set by school privateers and anti-labor bureaucrats rather than  the students and communities who must truly be centered.

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