Gov. Gray Davis' proposal for peer review for teachers comes at a good time, with a November Lou Harris poll showing that nearly 90 percent of Californians rate "ensuring a well-qualified teacher in every classroom" key to increasing student achievement. Current methods of evaluation neither identify poor teachers nor help already good teachers continue to improve. Peer review could remedy this.
San Diego County's Poway Unified School District offers a successful model. The review there, part of the contract between the district and the teachers union, is patterned after the first U.S. peer review program begun in Toledo, Ohio, in 1981. Usually a program monitors new teachers and is governed by a joint panel-teachers appointed by the union, administrators by the district. The union often seeks peer review because it is dissatisfied with teacher evaluation, which typically is conducted by overworked administrators who have neither adequate time nor training to make the assessments.
Every reviewing system we have encountered relies on mentors selected by a joint panel. School districts in Rochester, NY; Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo, Ohio; Minneapolis and elsewhere offer similar models. Mentor qualifications include a minimum number of years of successful teaching-in Poway it's five and in Rochester seven-along with screening and an interview by the joint panel. Rochester's mentors also must submit letters of recommendation from other teachers and their principal.
In some programs, such as Poway's, mentors are released full time from the classroom for three years. In Rochester, they're released part-time, and continue to teach part-time. They receive a stipend-in Poway, $4,300 a year to work with up to 15 teachers; in Rochester, they receive 5 percent to 10 percent above base salary, depending on how many teachers they oversee, and work with four to 10 teachers.
Mentors observe teachers in the classroom, aid in lesson planning, offer counsel-generally help teachers any way they can. It's not unusual for a mentor to spend 50 hours a year or more with a single teacher. At year's end, they recommend to the joint panel whether the new teacher should be rehired.
Poway teachers are evaluated on ability to teach lessons, manage the classroom and assess student learning; knowledge of subject; and professional growth. Nearly half of the district's 1,600 teachers-more than 700 in all-have been through Poway's decade-old program. While about 4 percent of the new teachers wash out their first year under peer review, union and district officials agree that many more good teachers who would have left because of first-year frustrations now stay. The key is that new teachers get the kind of support and assistance beginners need.
Mentors also deal with experienced teachers in professional trouble. These programs, called intervention, operate much as those for new teachers, with mentors providing support and assistance. Evidence suggests that larger numbers of seriously deficient teachers either improve or are removed through peer review than through traditional evaluation and dismissal methods.
Here's how California might proceed:
Require peer review for all first year teachers, as Ohio does. Use the experience from California's Beginning Teacher Support and Assistance Program. Let participates in the Mentor Teacher Program, who now often do curriculum work, perform peer review. Combine the money from these two programs to extend teacher education and to create a cadre of teachers with peer review experience.
Provide legislative authorization for, and encourage districts and unions to bargain, the following:
Peer review in tenure decisions. Minneapolis' tenure approval includes extensive peer review and a portfolio presentation of student and teacher work to a team of teachers and administrators.
Alternative evaluation programs for tenured teachers. Move away from the checklist model of evaluation for teachers whose competence is unquestioned. Substitute a system based on multiple-year cycles of professional growth and team-based peer review. In Rochester, Minneapolis and Poway, experienced teachers, guided by the district's quality teaching standards, work on projects specifically designed to improve teaching and learning.
Intervention programs for teachers in professional jeopardy. In Rochester, Minneapolis, Poway and other districts, mentors assist struggling teachers. Where remediation isn't successful, these teachers are helped to find another career.
Peer review offers a number of advantages: Good teachers stay and continue to improve. Poor teachers leave at the end of their first year. Tenured teachers in trouble get help, and, if that doesn't work, they're out. It's a system that offers an opportunity for teachers and districts to work together to improve the quality of teaching and education in California.
Julia E. Koppich is president of a San Francisco-based education consulting firm. She can be reached by phone at (415) 661-8102. Charles Taylor Kerchner is a faculty member at Claremont Graduate University. He can be reached by phone at (909) 607-9146. They are co-authors (with Joseph Weeres) of "United Mind Workers: Unions and Teaching in the Knowledge Society" (Jossey-Bass, 1997).
Date submitted: 06/18/2008