Evaluating Incompetence

When the District's financial control board named retired Army Gen. Julius Becton to commandeer the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), it commissioned a no-nonsense military autocrat determined to shock the school bureaucracy out of its stupor. A few days into his tenure, Becton obliged, firing off the following warning to school-system slackers: "Those of you who are working and competent have nothing to worry about. If you're incompetent and not carrying your load, I suggest that you seek employment elsewhere."

A nice sentiment, but incompetent school employees are unlikely to leave their sinecures in the city's most infamous turkey farm on the invitation of Becton's scowl alone. No, Becton will have to root them out, one by one. And unlike the Army--where bad apples compile demerits for messy beds and insubordination--school employees live a life beyond consequence. In any big organization, the most logical place to turn for data on incompetent employees is performance evaluations. But after a quick review of DCPS's evaluations, Becton might conclude that all the negative publicity and talk of crisis in the schools was one big hoax. Aggregate results from 1995, for example, rate over 99 percent of DCPS teachers as either "outstanding" (45 percent), "very good" (43 percent), or "satisfactory" (12 percent).

The numbers don't quite jibe with a system that routinely churns out illiterate high-school graduates and suffers from a 40-percent dropout rate. Surely the schools' widespread malfeasance is the handiwork of more than just the less than 1 percent of teachers rated as either "conditional" (whatever that means) or "unsatisfactory."

Jim Daugherty, former head of the DCPS personnel department, says Becton has a messy weeding job in front of him. "From where I was in [headquarters], I had no idea and no way to tell who...was doing poor work, because the ratings were satisfactory," says Daugherty. "Mr. Becton won't be able to do that either."

The solution, says Daugherty, is to pressure supervisors throughout the system to write critical performance evaluations that flush out teachers who come in late, show movies during class, or assign TV shows as homework. That isn't going to happen tomorrow.

Shelia Handy, DCPS's deputy superintendent for educational accountability, is currently hammering out a new system for completing teacher evaluations. Handy says, "The intent is to assure that we have a process that links student performance with the evaluation of teachers." Quite a concept, that. Handy concedes the current system doesn't quite pull it off and is testing three teacher-evaluation models that have worked in other big school systems.

Until the school system comes up with an evaluation system that actually evaluates, Becton and his squad of newly appointed DCPS lieutenants will have to visit every classroom with pink slips at the ready. Angie Corley, who has been monitoring performance for eight years as the Ward 5 school board member, says, "I don't know where the incompetence is."

--Erik Wemple

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