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'A culture of fear': How the teacher evaluation system Richmond's new superintendent created impacted D.C. schools (and why he won't bring it here)

'A culture of fear': How the teacher evaluation system Richmond's new superintendent created impacted D.C. schools (and why he won't bring it here)

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Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras will not bring a controversial teacher evaluation system he developed in Washington, D.C., to Richmond, he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The system was credited in part with fostering a “culture of passing” in Washington’s public schools, according to an investigation this year that found 1 in 3 graduates in 2017 advanced despite not meeting the necessary requirements.

Since the 44-year-old was named Richmond’s new schools chief in late November, Richmond School Board members, teachers and education advocates have raised concerns about the system, IMPACT, and its relationship to the “worst series of scandals in at least a decade” to rock Washington’s school system.

“It created a culture of fear,” David Tansey, a high school mathematics teacher in Washington, said of Kamras’ program. “Because it was paired with a top-down culture of getting results quickly, it became abused.”

How Kamras, the highest-paid superintendent in Richmond’s history, plans to assess Richmond Public Schools teachers remains unclear.

Eight days after the Richmond School Board announced Kamras’ selection in a celebratory news conference, an investigation revealed that fewer than half of students should have graduated from Washington’s Ballou High, previously touted as a bright spot in an ailing system for moving every senior on to college.

Six days before he was sworn in at the beginning of February, an independent review found that those issues, which stemmed in part from Kamras’ evaluation system, were endemic to D.C. Public Schools as a whole.

Kamras was noncommittal on teacher accountability when he discussed his plans for moving Richmond Public Schools forward at a community meeting the next month:

“My thinking on this has evolved,” Kamras told a crowd at the Richmond Police Training Academy. “I was much more student learning as, sort of, everything, and I still think it’s important, but I’ve evolved to a place where there are a lot of other things to consider when you’re talking about teacher evaluation.”

When asked to schedule an interview on the subject, a school system spokeswoman requested questions in writing. Kamras sat down with a reporter a week later.

Then, Kamras said he doesn’t have a specific plan in mind, just that it won’t be IMPACT.

“The idea of high expectations for everyone — myself, teachers, students — is certainly something that I believe in and something that will be a part of my leadership here,” he said. “But how that looks concretely is something we need to explore with our educators, students and families.

“What I can say for certain: I am not bringing IMPACT to Richmond.”


As Kamras distances himself from the system he created, he defended IMPACT in an interview as “equitable,” and effective.

Detractors of IMPACT say it identified high-quality students rather than high-quality teachers, but National Bureau of Economic Research findings credited the system with improving teachers in the division and ultimately boosting student achievement as both reading and mathematics scores improved.

“It led to big gains in student growth: almost an additional half year of learning — per year — in reading and math,” Kamras said. “That’s a bigger effect on student learning than almost every other intervention that’s been rigorously studied. But I’m the first to admit that it’s far from perfect. It needs to continuously evolve.”

Now he leads a system with lagging student achievement, where writing and math pass rates of the Standards of Learning test dropped for the 2015-16 school year to 45 percent and 58 percent, respectively. Just 3 in 5 students passed the English reading test. The deficient student achievement has led to just 19 of the division’s 44 schools earning full accreditation from the state.

Kamras has vowed to change that, promising full state accreditation in five years.

The first-time superintendent has spent time in the classroom and was named National Teacher of the Year in 2005 before joining the administration of D.C. Public Schools.

Then-DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee turned to Kamras, as the “chief of human capital,” to research and develop a new teacher evaluation system. Two years later, IMPACT was born.

The system directly linked student achievement to teacher evaluations, meaning test scores made up half of a teacher’s score along with five half-hour observations annually by administrators and master teachers — applicants who received training and evaluated teachers in their master subject while making between $92,000 and $102,000 per year.

IMPACT tied pay to the metrics, offering incentives for the highest-performing teachers while pushing out consistently low-performing teachers.

“Tying teacher evaluations to test scores is simply a bad way to go,” said Mark Simon, an education policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute. “It made the culture in the school system one of fear even more than it had been before.”

Different versions have since been released, tweaking the system to put less emphasis on student achievement (50 percent to 35 percent) while also eliminating evaluations done by master educators and instead having school administrators conduct the evaluations, something critics say is problematic.

Most teachers get four formal observations and one informal observation, according to a 2014 internal DCPS report on IMPACT. The highest-performing teachers receive fewer observations. Low-performing teachers lose their jobs.

Teachers receive an overall score on a 100-400 scale that is used to classify them. In 2010-11, the second year of IMPACT and the first year of the revised version, the average first-year teacher scored 283, while the average teacher with two or more years of experience scored 299. Both averages fell in the “effective” classification.

Just 3 in 5 minimally effective teachers were retained in 2010-11 and 2011-12. Teachers in Washington’s “highest need” schools were eligible for bonuses up to $25,000.

“The district has put in place a plan that is more comprehensive than those of any school district perhaps ever in the United States,” said Thomas Toch, the director of FutureEd, an independent think tank housed within the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. “Jason and his colleagues have transformed teaching from a low-pay, low-status occupation to a performance-driven profession that has recognition, support and significant compensation.”

The “intellectual engine” behind the reforms, Toch said, was Kamras. Now the district is in the crosshairs of what The Washington Post describes as the division’s “worst series of scandals in at least a decade.”

“I don’t think it makes sense to just whole cloth, pick up a system and move it over to another system,” Kamras said when asked why he wouldn’t bring IMPACT to Richmond. “There’s a lot of power and value in having educators wherever you are be a part of creating that system.”

Teachers, parents and the independent report released in January all said the system created a culture of intimidation and fear that contributed to what are now known as invalid graduation figures.

“I’ve never seen this widespread unhappiness among teachers,” said Peter MacPherson, a former DCPS parent and Parent Teacher Association president.

Said Valerie Jablow, a DCPS parent: “To think a test score says it all about how kids are learning, how teachers are teaching and how schools are functioning is so limiting and unfair.”


Enter Ballou High School.

Officials at the home of the Knights, located in one of Washington’s poorest neighborhoods, celebrated last year as all of the school’s graduates applied and were accepted to college for the first time after years of low graduation rates.

It was a fraud.

An independent report commissioned by the district’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education found that more than 3 in 5 graduates had policy violations, ranging from missing credits in courses required to earn a diploma to passing despite having exceeded the number of allowed absences.

The “high passing percentage expectations” administrators communicated to teachers through IMPACT fostered a climate in which teachers felt like they must pass students, according to the report. Critics of the program say that because principals and assistant principals evaluate teachers, teachers worry about lower IMPACT scores, and in turn the possibility of losing their jobs.

Many did, especially in schools like Ballou, where 100 percent of students were economically disadvantaged.

Last year, 11 percent of teachers in Wards 7 and 8 in Washington were rated ineffective or minimally effective — the highest percentages in the division. Those two wards contain the highest levels of children living in poverty in the city and have low student achievement.

At the 40 DCPS schools with the lowest test scores, an average 1 in 3 teachers have left every year since 2012, while 1 in 5 leave at schools with low numbers of at-risk students.

Said Mary Levy, an independent DCPS analyst: “This is just not a healthy situation.”

“You’re punished for teaching at the lowest-performing schools,” said Tansey, the teacher. “It made it almost impossible to be rated effective if you’re at one of those schools.”

The number of RPS teachers who were fired last year because of their performance evaluations was not immediately available.

Kamras, who has preached a message of equity since coming to Richmond, said he considers IMPACT to be equitable, referencing the financial incentives for teachers in high-need schools. But he admits to it still having flaws.

“This stuff is complicated,” Kamras said. “There’s no perfect way to do it.”

A push to overhaul the embattled system in the wake of Kamras’ departure is gaining momentum, said Cathy Reilly, the director at Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators in Washington.

Elizabeth Davis, the head of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said it’s lobbying the mayor, City Council and DCPS leaders to design and adopt a new performance evaluation system.

A union survey of DCPS teachers found that about half of respondents felt pressured or coerced by a school administrator to pass a student, even if that student didn’t meet the expectations for passing, or to change a grade. The issue was most prevalent at the high school level, where 3 in 5 teachers said they felt pressured.

Emails obtained by The Times-Dispatch show Kamras had little written communication with former Ballou Principal Yetunde Reeves, who was removed from her post after an NPR story detailing the school’s graduation scandal was published.

In one email, dated Sept. 22, 2016, Kamras complimented Reeves’ effort to improve the school, later described in the review as a place where “a culture of passing students has grown to be the norm.”

“Just been so impressed with how you’ve begun to shift the culture at Ballou,” Kamras wrote, responding to Reeves, who thanked the chief of instructional practice for recommending her to lead a workshop.

Kamras later defended the email, saying he was unaware of the issues at Ballou until the NPR investigation was published.

“My comment was about the student culture at the school and I stand by it,” he said. “Over the last several years, I witnessed a significant increase in the positivity of the student culture: students feeling that they belonged, that they were loved and valued and that they were respected with meaningful academic work.”


While Kamras isn’t directly named in the Ballou-inspired independent review that faults IMPACT, some RPS teachers remain wary.

“Being pushed to get high scores is something that deteriorates your relationship with your kids,” said Emma Clark, a former teacher at Boushall Middle and a leader of Support Our Schools, an education advocacy group in Richmond. “When you’re being pushed to get high scores for the success of your own career, it drives this wedge between you and your kids because your best interest is no longer necessarily their best interest, so you have moments where you have to make a choice between what’s good for you and what’s good for your kids.

“Putting teachers in that position is not fair.”

The current RPS teacher evaluation system weights student academic growth at 40 percent of an educator’s score, a figure higher than the current version of IMPACT in Washington.

“It’s a Catch-22,” said Ramon Moore, the president of the Richmond Education Association, who said evaluation systems should be tailored to outcomes, but without over-reliance on student performance.

Said Kamras: “A lot of teachers in RPS have told me that they’re exhausted and feel undervalued. We have to address that. We need to make the job much more sustainable.”

School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page said that “there have been initial conversations” about what accountability will look like for RPS under Kamras. She would not elaborate.

The School Board and Kamras are embarking on a strategic planning process that will set priorities for the division. Kamras’ initial 100-Day plan focused on engagement, equity and excellence, and included a series of task forces, meetings and programs meant to help inform his vision for RPS.

“We look forward to hearing more about plans for training and supporting our teachers to ensure that they not only are held accountable ... but that they also feel valued and appreciated for their work,” Page said.

Kamras has yet to hire a chief talent officer, the lone position on his six-person Cabinet not filled. At least half of his Cabinet members worked in Washington.

Now the group is tasked with changing the course of a division where fewer than half of schools are fully accredited by the state, nearly 1 in 5 students drop out and about 3 in 4 graduate.

It’ll be up to Kamras, with his DCPS track record and former colleagues, to turn it around.

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

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