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October 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 2

When Teachers Support and Evaluate Their Peers

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In peer assistance and review (PAR) programs, teacher leadership plays an essential role in growing teachers' practice.

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One of the historical failings of teacher evaluation systems in the United States has been their reliance on the school principal alone as the person expected to observe teachers, mentor beginners, coach those who need help, document concerns and support processes for those who struggle, and make the final call on whether to recommend dismissal based on the assembled record. Principals also have to handle dozens of other obligations to school boards, central offices, teachers, parents, and students daily. Further, in high-poverty settings, they have a raft of social services and categorical programs to juggle so students will be fed, be housed, be protected, and receive health care.
It's easy to see how attention to teacher support and evaluation can become difficult under these circumstances. And in larger schools, where there may be as many as 100 teachers, it's impossible for one lone principal to conduct intensive evaluations for every teacher every year. (In business settings, the appropriate span of control is typically considered to be one supervisor to seven or fewer employees.)

Enter Peer Assistance and Review

One solution to this problem is the creation of peer assistance and review (PAR) programs that rely on highly expert mentor teachers to conduct some aspects of the evaluation and assist teachers who need it. Over the past 30 years, PAR programs have demonstrated that it's possible to evaluate teachers rigorously, support them intensely, and make personnel decisions effectively.
The first peer assistance and review program began in Toledo, Ohio, in the early 1980s as a partnership between the school board and the teachers union. Union leader Dal Lawrence was convinced that "teaching would become a profession only when teachers themselves set standards for their work and decided who met those standards and deserved to teach" (Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, n.d.). To address these concerns, Lawrence proposed a program to the Toledo Public School District to better mentor and induct new teachers into the profession. The program also provided intensive support to veteran teachers who struggled.
Thirty years later, the Toledo PAR program has become the blueprint for other PAR programs across the United States. Such programs now exist in at least 41 districts in 13 states (California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, and Washington). A number of these systems have been studied and found to be successful in identifying teachers for continuation and tenure as well as those needing intensive assistance and personnel action (California State University Institute for Education Reform, 2000; Humphrey, Koppich, Bland, & Bosetti, 2011; National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 1996). These systems—collaborations between unions and school boards—build in due process and assistance for teachers placed in intervention. They have proven more effective than traditional evaluation systems at both improving teaching and making effective and timely personnel decisions.
The Center for Teaching Quality has summarized many of the benefits of peer evaluation:
We argue that a key to strengthening [teacher evaluation] will be to involve more classroom teachers in the process of reviewing their colleagues. We make this claim for several reasons: One is that good teachers know content and how to teach it—and this component needs to be a part of an improved [evaluation program]. The second is that administrators are overburdened with many complex issues that only they can address. Schools are not funded and organized to support a more rigorous and in-depth teacher evaluation system. The third is that any effective teacher evaluation system will need to be closely connected to other elements of teacher development from pre-service [to] induction [to] professional development in working communities of teaching professionals. (as cited in Accomplished California Teachers [ACT], 2010)
Above and beyond the instruments used for evaluation, the PAR system includes two key features: (1) the expertise of consulting teachers, skilled teachers who have been released from some classroom teaching responsibilities to serve as mentors who support fellow teachers in the same subject areas and grade levels; and (2) a system of due process and review that involves a panel of both teachers and administrators who recommend personnel decisions based on evidence from the evaluations. This joint committee oversees the work of the mentor teachers who support both beginning and veteran teachers. On the basis of reports from the mentor teachers and principals, the committee decides which teachers will receive tenure, which will have another year to improve, and which will be dismissed. Similarly, before the school year is over, the committee decides which teachers in the intervention program have improved sufficiently to continue teaching in the district.

How PAR Operates

In Toledo, the PAR governing body consists of an internal review board made up of nine members (five teachers and four administrators) who oversee the program. Although the number of board members may differ from district to district, panels typically include nearly equal numbers of teachers and administrators, with a slight edge to teachers. This governing body is responsible for overseeing the work of the mentor teachers as well as evaluating accumulated evidence on a participating teacher and making final tenure and employment recommendations to the superintendent of schools.

Selection of Consulting Teachers

Consulting teachers have at least five years of teaching experience. They undergo an intensive selection process that includes classroom observations, interviews, a review of their teaching evaluations, and recommendations from peers and administrators. In the Toledo model, these mentors are employed full-time to support and evaluate approximately 10 novice or struggling teachers over the course of an intervention or mentorship period. They serve up to three years before returning to the classroom, and they're paid an annual stipend of $5,000–$7,000.

Support and Evaluation

Consulting teachers design a support, intervention, and improvement plan based on the needs of each teacher. The support spans five domains: planning and designing instruction, instruction, classroom management, assessment, and professional development. Mentors assist with lesson planning, share resources, observe in classrooms, and provide feedback on classroom management and instructional practices.
When working with experienced teachers who are struggling, consulting teachers provide intensive guidance and direction, including helping the teachers design and implement individualized improvement plans. Consulting teachers make periodic reports to the governance board, marshaling evidence about the teacher's professional practice. At the conclusion of the teacher's time in PAR (usually a year), the governance board examines the consulting teacher's reports, the administrator's evaluations, and other evidence. The board then recommends whether the teacher should be retained in the district.

Program Effects

Studies of PAR outcomes have found that retention rates for beginning teachers have increased significantly and that those who leave are primarily those the district doesn't renew rather than candidates who become disenchanted with teaching. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the new teacher attrition rate for those who participate in PAR programs is 15 percent, compared with 26 percent for those who don't participate (Marshall, 2008).
Internal data from PAR districts suggest that among veteran teachers identified for assistance and review (usually 1 to 3 percent of the teaching force), many improve sufficiently to be removed from intervention status, and typically one-third to one-half leave on their own or by district request. Because teacher associations collaborate in creating and administering the programs and due process is built into the design of the model, there are no extended legal proceedings when a teacher is dismissed.

PAR in Action

To understand how such programs work, an in-depth study by SRI International and Koppich Associates looked at two California districts known for their well-developed PAR programs: Poway, an early California pioneer in this work, and San Juan, a district that built its program more recently (Humphrey et al., 2011).

Some History

In the late 1980s, Don Raczka, a middle school mathematics teacher, and other teacher leaders from Poway studied Toledo's program and brought its key features to their district. As in Toledo, the Poway program was designed to work with both novices and struggling experienced teachers. As Poway has a long tradition of careful teacher selection, the primary goal was not to get rid of bad teachers but to further develop good ones. However, the program has effectively addressed the need for teacher accountability in the relatively rare cases in which teachers don't become highly competent. Years later, Raczka, the now-retired president of the Poway Federation of Teachers, noted, "Today we have better trained teachers who are used to reflecting on their practice and talking about pedagogy. We want evaluation to make sense for them" (California State University Institute for Education Reform, 2000).
In 1999, the California State Legislature authorized a statewide grant program for PAR programs as part of a hybrid model designed to work in tandem with an existing induction program called Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA). This made California the first state to enact funding for this kind of teacher evaluation and mentoring strategy statewide. The San Juan district created its model with these funds.

What the Research Found

As in Toledo (and other PAR districts), San Juan and Poway use the program to sort out those few ineffective teachers who don't improve. Historically, about two-thirds of veterans identified for intervention improve substantially and successfully complete the program; about one-third resign or are dismissed. Among beginning teachers, about 20 percent are not renewed.
As the researchers noted, however, the effects of the program are much broader. For example, over the years, Poway's program for beginning teachers has served 1,875 individuals—more than 60 percent of the teachers currently in the district. Poway officials note that the success of the program in both building competence and weeding out poor performers at the beginning of their careers has helped raise the overall quality of practice in the district. Both consulting teachers and mentees report that they became better teachers as a result of their careful analysis of and work on practice. Thus, relatively few teachers are identified as struggling later in their careers.
Charlotte Kutzner, program coordinator for the Poway Professional Assistance Program, explains how support and evaluation for beginning teachers are handled in this model, which has merged the traditional California program for beginning teachers (BTSA) with the PAR program for assisting veteran teachers. The program also combines the mentoring and evaluation functions that are sometimes kept separate in district evaluation systems:
Poway's Professional Assistance Program is a BTSA program, and like others, we are responsible for meeting all of the induction standards [for beginning teachers]. But unlike most other induction programs, we are also responsible for evaluation of first-year teachers. So we observe and conference, we support teachers, but our evaluations are not confidential. When I work with a new teacher, I share what I see in their classroom with their principal and also report to a governance board, which includes the assistant superintendent of personnel, the union president, and two teachers. People ask, "How can you do both support and evaluation?" We do, and it has worked since 1987, and from the get-go it has been evaluative. I would say that, over the years, 95 percent of the teachers I have worked with have forgotten that I am their evaluator by Thanksgiving. I am Charlotte. I am their friend, their colleague; I am there to support them.There is also a program to support veteran teachers who have been rated as not meeting standards. This program, the Permanent Teacher Intervention Program (similar to PAR in other districts), is designed to assist permanent teachers who have been identified as being in serious professional jeopardy. The teacher receives assistance from a teacher consultant much like the new teacher does in the induction program. In this program, the principal remains the evaluator and the teacher consultant reports progress to the principal and the governance board …. Our program is successful because of our working relationship with the district and the union. This is truly a joint effort. (ACT, 2010)

What Consulting Teachers Do

Consulting teachers are carefully chosen by the governance board and the program director on the basis of their teaching ability, coaching and communication skills, and leadership ability. They are activated full- or part-time when a teacher with their content background and teaching level is needed. In San Juan and Poway, consulting teachers serve for one to four years before rotating back into the classroom. The governance board evaluates their work by reviewing their reports and presentations and can terminate their appointment at any time if there are concerns about performance.
To learn this challenging job, the consulting teachers participate in targeted professional development and in a regular problem-solving group with peers. They share ideas about how to address particular needs, have difficult conversations productively, and lasso the most appropriate resources for the cases they're working on.
In these districts, consulting teachers provide an extraordinary amount of support for instruction and evaluation, both for the teachers with whom they work directly and often for other teachers in the district. They not only observe in the classroom and give feedback, often videotaping or scripting the lessons so there's a record of practice, but also work with the teachers to develop lessons, assignments, classroom management systems, and grading systems. They help select curriculum materials, model lessons, and analyze student work in conjunction with the participating teacher. They lead professional development events and also attend various events with the teachers so they can provide follow-up coaching. During this period, they document the teacher's progress both as a learning tool for the teacher and as part of the due process that accompanies evaluation.

What Is in the Documentation

As consulting teachers work with their charges, they develop a record that includes
  • A detailed improvement plan.
  • Detailed logs of each observation and conference with the participating teacher.
  • Meeting notes, e-mail correspondence, sample lesson plans, and other supporting evidence.
  • Summary reports that the consulting teacher produces every two months for the governance board.
Consulting teachers take great care with this process—and make a large investment in its success. Whereas principals averaged one formal evaluation and two informal evaluations of the teachers referred to PAR in an academic year, consulting teachers averaged five formal evaluations and 38 informal observations in which they offered intensive assistance and mentoring. Principals' records of their observations, assistance, and participating teachers' progress averaged seven pages in a year, whereas those of the consulting teachers averaged 190. These records, which detail the focus on improving teachers' practice as much as documenting teacher strengths and weaknesses, are a record for advice and counsel and the source of the governance board's later review.
The end result is that most teachers who are placed in intervention under PAR improve considerably. Meanwhile, those who do not improve either leave on their own or are dismissed without grievances. As the SRI report notes,
PAR accomplishes what traditional evaluation does not. It gives teachers ample and supported opportunity to improve their practice and be successful. For those who do not or cannot improve, the performance documentation generated through PAR offers what San Juan union president Steve Duditch called "an airtight case"—evidence so compelling that the action that needs to be taken is clear. (Humphrey et al., 2012)
More usual is the case of Elizabeth, a 5th grade teacher who was referred into PAR to work with a consulting teacher, Amanda. Over the course of a year—which included 52 informal observations, many debriefing conferences, collaborative planning meetings, and several formal observations—they worked intensively on two standards from the California Standards for the Teaching Profession: (1) engaging and supporting all students in learning, and (2) maintaining effective environments for student learning. Amanda also modeled instruction in Elizabeth's classroom during four half days and one full day so Elizabeth could see the strategies she needed to develop.
Initially, Amanda helped Elizabeth reorganize the physical environment of her classroom to support student engagement and promote better classroom management. They changed seating patterns so students could engage in group work and so Elizabeth could see and respond to all the students. Elizabeth could then build a wider array of instructional strategies to support student learning. Moving slowly at first to solidify her new practices, Elizabeth was able to accelerate her improvement in the second part of the year. By the end of the year, she met all the standards in these two areas and was able to maintain these new practices independently.
Teachers don't have to be referred to PAR to benefit from the support. In districts where peer evaluation is well rooted, teachers who want to improve their practice can request consulting teacher support on topics they choose, such as classroom management, leading a productive discussion, or supporting English language learners. This creates a broader base for peer evaluation and support—and more opportunities for sharing expertise.

Teacher Leadership: The Essential Ingredient

Teacher leadership is essential to productive teacher evaluation that supports growth in practice. Teachers grow their practice through effective professional learning and coaching, and through the kind of communal engagement in sustained work on instruction over time that PAR offers. PAR also engages teams of teachers and administrators in the design and governance of the evaluation system so that everyone develops shared standards of practice and a collective perspective on how to improve the work.
Engaging expert teachers through programs like PAR can help districts build systems that link evaluation, professional development, and collegial learning—and can help develop a teaching profession that retains talent and continually expands teachers' individual and collective expertise.
Editors' note: This article is adapted with permission from Linda Darling-Hammond's book, Getting Teacher Evaluation Right: What Really Matters for Effectiveness and Improvement (Teachers College Press, 2013).

Accomplished California Teachers (ACT). (2010). A quality teacher in every classroom: Creating a teacher evaluation system that works for California. Stanford, CA: National Board Resource Center, Stanford University.

California State University Institute for Education Reform. (2000, March). Peer assistance and review: Working models across the country. Sacramento, CA: Author.

Project on the Next Generation of Teachers. (n.d.). A user's guide to peer assistance and review. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from www.gse.harvard.edu/~ngt/par

Humphrey, D., Koppich, J., Bland, A., & Bosetti, K. R. (2011). Peer review: Getting serious about teacher evaluation. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Marshall, R. (2008). The case for collaborative school reform: The Toledo experience. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.

National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. (1996). What matters most: Teaching for America's future. New York: Author.

Linda Darling-Hammond is president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University, where she founded the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and served as faculty sponsor of the Stanford Teacher Education Program, which she helped to redesign.

Darling-Hammond is past president of the American Educational Research Association and recipient of its awards for Distinguished Contributions to Research, Lifetime Achievement, and Research-to-Policy. She is a member of the American Association of Arts and Sciences and of the National Academy of Education.

In 2006, she was named one of the nation's 10 most influential people affecting educational policy and later served as the leader of President Obama's education policy transition team.

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