IMPACT Teacher Bonuses Haven’t Had Much Impact on Test Scores in D.C. Public Schools

By Emily Richards | June 9, 2015 | 3:31 PM EDT

Former D.C. Public School Chancellor Michelle Rhee was featured on the Dec. 8, 2008 cover of TIme Magazine. (Time)

( -- Despite spending millions of dollars on teacher bonuses and incentives, a new report reveals that disadvantaged students enrolled in the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) have made little progress since the school system was reformed to great national fanfare eight years ago.

In 2007, the D.C. Council passed the Public Education Reform Amendment Act (PERAA) which created a school chancellor who, along with the mayor, would have control over the city’s struggling public schools rather than the city’s Board of Education.

Michelle Rhee, the DCPS chancellor from 2007 to 2010, gained national attention in 2009 for creating IMPACT, a pay-for-performance evaluation system that monetarily rewards teachers based on students’ test scores, classroom observations, quality of the school community, and the educators’ overall professionalism.

The IMPACT program cost $3.2 million in FY 2010 and $3.9 million in FY 2011. It was originally funded by private sources, but taxpayers had to pick up the tab after the end of the 2012 school year when the private funding ended.

Since then, the District of Columbia has spent millions of dollars on IMPACT bonuses. According to the DCPS FY 2014 budget, the program cost over $3.6 million last year alone.

However, there is little academic progress to show for eight years of IMPACT incentives, with more than half of the system’s black and Hispanic students still failing to reach grade-level benchmarks in reading and math.

“More than half of black and Hispanic students, those with disabilities, those eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, and English language learners score below proficient, and there is little evidence that these gaps are narrowing significantly,” according to  a new study by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Some improvement is evident since 2009, but more than half of these students still score below proficient. There is little indication that these performance disparities—in test scores or in graduation rates—are lessening,” the study noted.

The NRC report states that 80 percent of the public school teachers in D.C. who were rated by IMPACT as “effective” or higher in 2013-2014 returned to teach the following year. However, they were not evenly distributed throughout the school system.

“The lowest-income students tend to have teachers with the lowest IMPACT scores,” the NRC report stated , “and this relationship persists even when average IMPACT scores are compared across the schools within a single ward.”

The distribution of “effective” teachers was not the only distinction between the city’s affluent and disadvantaged wards. Advanced Placement courses are not as available to students in low-income areas as they are to others living in more affluent areas, according to the report.

Similarly, although graduation rates have fluctuated since 2007, they “remain disturbingly low” for minority and low-income students, the report states.

Test scores have also shown a lack of improvement for certain student groups.“Black and Hispanic students, those with disabilities, those eligible for free or reduced price lunches, and English-language learners are much more likely to be in the lowest performance categories than other students,” the NRC report noted.

According to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), D.C. students scored below the national average in 4th and 8th grade reading and math tests.

In reading, 4th graders in D.C. scored 205 compared to the national average of 220 and 8th graders scored 247 compared to the national average of 266. In math, 4th graders scored 228 compared to the national average of 241 and 8th graders scored 265 compared to 283.

But disadvantaged 4th graders in D.C. only scored 194 in reading - 13  points lower than the national average of 207 for their low-income peers. And DCPS’ 58.3 percent graduation rate is also considerably lower than the 2013 national average of 81 percent.

Low test scores and high drop-out rates existed in D.C. before the IMPACT program, and were a major factor in the development of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a federally-funded program created in 2003 that gives vouchers to low- income students to help them attend private schools.

Six years later, the Obama administration purposely allowed the voucher program to expire. However, in 2011, House Speaker John Boehner and then Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) created the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act which re-established funding to the program.

Currently, 1,442 D.C. students receive vouchers to attend private schools. The voucher program had an 89 percent high school graduation rate in 2014, which was higher than the national average.

However, President Obama’s fiscal year 2016 budget has cut funding to the D.C. voucher program.

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