Making Sense of Michelle Rhee’s Legacy and Teacher “Churn and Burn”

If you haven't read it already, I highly recommend Washington Post reporter Bill Turque's analysis of Michelle Rhee's legacy one year after she left the D.C. public schools. Turque writes about the "churn and burn" in the D.C. teacher corps since the introduction of the controversial new IMPACT teacher evaluation and merit pay system: One-third of all teachers on the payroll in September 2007 no longer work for the district, and inexperienced teachers are more clustered than ever in low-income schools and neighborhoods. We know this is problematic because DC's own data shows that 22 percent of teachers with six to 10 years of experience are rated "highly effective," compared to just 12 percent of teachers with less than six years experience. 

That said, if inexperienced but minimally-competent teachers are replacing grossly incompetent ones, the high turnover might be a better option than leaving bad teachers in the classroom. In the case of D.C., is that what's happening? Democrats for Education Reform has a new report on IMPACT with some helpful charts that put the "one-third attrition" stat in context. First, let's take a look at how IMPACT evaluated DC's 4,000 teachers' union members during the 2010-2011 school year.

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The small gray wedge represents the 2 percent of teachers who were rated "ineffective" and immediately terminated. Another 2 percent were rated "minimally effective" two years in a row and then terminated. These two groups account for about 200 teachers. The four-year turnover rate of one-third, therefore, is vastly larger than the 4 percent of "ineffective" teachers in the district. Even if every single teacher rated "minimally effective" for just one year had quit, these three problematic categories would account for only 17 percent of the teacher corps–about half the actual four-year attrition rate.

The comparison isn't perfect because these IMPACT figures are a snapshot from a single school year and, as Turque has reported, D.C. does not release its annual teacher attrition rate–the number of teachers who don't come back to work from spring to the following fall. But extrapolating from the available data, it seems clear that the majority of teachers leaving D.C. are currently "effective," or at least have the potential to become effective teachers over time. Indeed, the DFER report demonstrates that D.C. teachers rated "minimally effective" who stay in the district have a decent chance of improving under IMPACT.

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I think the longterm question on IMPACT and other new evaluation plans is whether promising teachers choose to stick around to work under these systems. Of course, some teacher attrition is inevitable, since teachers retire, move away, and go on maternity leave. But the average yearly teacher attrition rate in a low-poverty American public school is 12.9 percent, compared to 20 percent in a high-poverty school. Since unwanted teacher attrition costs the typical urban school district tens of millions of dollars annually–and disporportionately affects low-income kids–a good test of any teacher quality reform is whether it improves the retention of effective teachers, not just whether it results in the firing of ineffective ones.

The evidence from DC is mixed, since many more teachers are leaving the District than have been deemed ineffective or unlikely to improve. At the same time, those who choose to stay despite the challenges and tumult seem to be gaining some professional development benefits. 

Read More:

The DFER report contains testimonies from teachers who felt IMPACT improved their practice

Jay Matthews' column on one well-regarded DC teacher who found the system unhelpful

Jay Matthews' column on a DC princpal who dislikes IMPACT

2 thoughts on “Making Sense of Michelle Rhee’s Legacy and Teacher “Churn and Burn”

  1. Leonie Haimson

    Is there any data on how many teachers rated highly effective or effective are rated minimally effective or ineffective the next year? The change from one category, ie that “D.C. teachers rated “minimally effective” who stay in the district have a decent chance of improving under IMPACT” might simply be a function of random variation. In fact, the DFER report says that of those “Returning Teachers Rated Minimally Effective in 2009-2010, 58% Improved in 2010-2011″ which might just as well show the unreliability of the metric. Have you also considered the possibility that those teachers rated ineffective and immediately terminated might also have been good teachers, given how erratic test scores are from year to year?

  2. Michael Fiorillo

    Churn and burn is the point: a transient, powerless, at-will work force is precisely what the Rhees of the world want, despite their marketing of themselves as advocates for students. Control and domination of the profession, both in terms of teacher training and labor relations, is a cornerstone of corporate ed reform.

    By encouraging high teacher turnover, they intend to eliminate all institutional memory of a traditional, democratically-run public school system, and replace it with the monetized, top heavy, high throughput(in that they maximize the never-ending use of foundations, private and university-based consultants, institutes, networks, coaches and all the other quasi-parasitical appendages to the schools)system that we see in cities like New York and Chicago.

    By the way, it might be helpful if you indentified DFER as the politically-juiced advocacy organization it is.


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