Sunday, September 18, 2011

PRAISE FOR PEER EVALUATIONS: In 2 districts, teachers assess other teachers

By John Fensterwald - Educated Guess |

9/15/11 • Contrary to the common belief that teachers cannot evaluate their peers objectively – and shouldn’t try to – in San Juan Unified “consulting teachers” do just that for a teacher who received a principal’s unsatisfactory review. In Poway Unified, specially assigned teachers not only evaluate struggling tenured teachers but also new, probationary teachers.

In both districts the teachers pass on their findings to a board composed of teachers and administrators whose recommendation whether that teacher should be retained or fired has invariably been accepted by the superintendent.

The programs in Poway and San Juan, known as Peer Assistance and Review, not only “give the lie to critics who assert that unionized teachers will never judge a colleague’s performance.” But – legislators take notice – they also “provide clear evidence that PAR can be a rigorous alternative to traditional forms of teacher evaluation and development,” according to “Peer Review: Getting Serious About Teacher Support and Evaluation, the findings of an intensive study of the two districts by SRI International and J. Koppich and Associates.**

Unions have been adept in gumming up the process of firing even the worst  performers in order to protect members from potentially arbitrarily and poorly done evaluations. But, with incentives and pressure from the Obama administration, change to evaluations is spreading nationwide and it’s inevitable in California. (AB 5, the primary evaluation bill sponsored by Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, will get serious attention next year.)

Some state legislatures have adopted crude test-score-based evaluations. Though that’s not likely here, the choice facing the California Teachers Assn. and the California Federation of Teachers is whether to resist and weaken or to embrace and lead.

PAR, according to the report, presents a chance to turn the standard, top-down model of evaluation on its head.

PAR is not a new program. Poway Unified adopted it 25 years ago, based on the first PAR in Toledo, and San Juan Unified added it in the late ’90s. Other districts did, too,  after Gov. Gray Davis put money behind the program. But many districts abandoned PAR after the state cut funding, and few districts have remained as true to PAR’s intent, despite its costs, as San Juan and Poway.

“We’re proud of the program and have worked hard to keep its integrity” and its purpose of using “one’s peers to contribute collectively to improve teaching and learning,” said Tom Alves, executive director of the San Juan Teachers Association.

Balance between remediation and evaluation

California had one of  the highest ratio of administrators to students in the nation before the latest round of state K-12 cuts. The common complaint of teachers is that principals do drive-by evaluations, and many don’t know the pedagogy of the courses or grades they’re evaluating. Adding serious, regular evaluations with more extensive observations and conversations will prove daunting.

From a practical standpoint, peer review can ease the burden. But the study found that there’s a different orientation. “Given the limited amount of time the principals actually spent with the participating teachers, the focus of their evaluation was often primarily to identify deficiencies but not to develop a strategy to correct them,” it said.

Consulting teachers are released from other duties to work intensively over the course of a year with poor performers (plus beginning teachers in Poway’s case), suggesting better teaching methods while measuring teachers’ improvement. The double goals of evaluation and remediation require a delicate balance, and the selection of consulting teachers is critical. They must be respected for mastery in the classroom and have people skills to gain the trust of the referred teachers and principals. In San Juan, the eight consulting teachers, serving a 41,000-student district, serve four-year assignments.

Governing board members must work closely with consulting teachers and each other. Teachers comprise the majority (four out of seven in San Juan, two out of five in Poway), although recommendations require a supermajority, and board discussions haven’t broken down along union-management lines, said principal researcher Julia Koppich. Because the consulting teachers’ reports are detailed and extensive, and the board usually decides by consensus, superintendents have not disputed the boards’ recommendations, Alves said.

Teachers maintain their rights under the contract to contest the evaluation process. But when consulting teachers and boards build what one union president called “an airtight case,” teachers rarely contest the findings.

Teachers are referred to PAR if they fail two, and occasionally one, of the five categories of the California Standards for the Teaching Profession. In the years covered by the study, 13 of the 20 Poway veteran teachers referred to PAR completed remediation and continued teaching; the other seven left the district. Of the 28 San Juan teachers in PAR, 16 returned to the classroom, four were recommended for dismissal, five left voluntarily, and three remain in the program.

The report noted the low number of PAR referrals (an average of only 1 per year in Poway), which it attributed both to the reluctance of many principals to build the case for an unsatisfactory rating, and in Poway’s case, to the fact that 60 percent of the district’s teachers already had been screened when they were novice teachers. (About 95 percent of novice teachers have gotten favorable recommendations so far – a high rate.)

Poway is the only district to use PAR to evaluate beginning teachers in each of their first two years. It has had to do so carefully – and possibly illegally – because state law technically prohibits PAR for nontenured teachers. The Legislature created BTSA (Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment) for coaching novice teachers. The report recommends the elimination of the prohibition.

Can PAR be expanded?

Officials in both San Juan and Poway have indicated an interest in extending PAR to broader evaluations. Alves said the union has requested that the section of the contract relating to evaluations be reopened for discussion. Already, it has agreed to extend PAR to evaluate preschool teachers in the district.

The PAR process would have to be tweaked to shift from strictly remediation to evaluation and professional development. The cost of freeing up additional teacher time, with budgets so tight, would be a complication. (If AB 5 passes as a state mandate, some costs would be reimbursed.)

Koppich expressed optimism. “There is no reason why you can’t do evaluations with observations using this type of program for all teachers. It’s an analog for a new system.”

And, she said, the collaboration and problem-solving in the governance board will spill over to other labor-management relations.

** The study was funded by the Stuart Foundation, one of the underwriters of this blog. In coming days, I’ll be writing about The College Ready Promise, a project of four charter school organization to implement a new teacher evaluation system. To take an advance look at what they’re up to, go here. You can contact me at

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