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Toledo's Peer-Review Program Fails To Make the Cut

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Toledo, Ohio

About a dozen teachers share a cramped office in the basement of the McKinley School here, just north of downtown. It is a strange place for them to be, among pipes and concrete floors, given the weighty work they are doing.

In this office, the veteran teachers meet with the colleagues they evaluate during the year and write reports on the teaching habits of their peers. And, finally, it is where they make judgment calls--telling the district which teachers should stay and which should go.

Now, in the late spring, is the time of year when the office is busy as these "consulting" teachers prepare to face the board of review--a panel of educators and school officials that acts on the teachers' advice.

But things are about to quiet down in the basement of this old brick elementary school, and not just because summer is near.

Next fall, after 15 years of qualified success, Toledo's peer-review program is expected to make its exit.

'The Last Straw'

In the end, it was a labor-management dispute that got in the way.

Last month, the Toledo Federation of Teachers pulled the program after the district made a special agreement with the administrators' union to give elementary principals extra pay for overseeing state proficiency tests. (See Education Week, 5/3/95.)

Dal Lawrence, the president of the teachers' union, said that was "the last straw" in a chain of events that had soured relations between the parties. "The management had an opportunity to rebuild the school system, but they're too traditional in their thinking."

"I think he simply concluded that it's better not to have the program than to have it without integrity," said Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association in Rochester, N.Y., which also has a peer-review program. "These programs must be based on trust and good faith between the parties, otherwise the [teachers] are simply doing the district's dirty work."

The Toledo program's demise surprised and upset a lot of people in the 38,000-student school system, the first in the nation to give teachers such authority. The "Toledo Plan" won national recognition and paved the way for other districts that adopted the approach. In addition to Rochester, two districts in Ohio--Cincinnati and Columbus--had adopted the programs, as had several smaller school systems.

And the news left some here wondering if their efforts to change the teaching culture in the district were shattered for good.

"The level of professionalism has really come up here over the years," said Ron Black, a consultant and 25-year teaching veteran. "It upsets me that we might be going back to the old style of doing things."

Fighting for Control?

Next school year, Toledo administrators will be handling all first-year teacher evaluations again--after 15 years on the sidelines.

They are getting that responsibility back by default.

Mr. Lawrence, whose union represents about 2,600 educators, disagreed with the district's decision to give elementary principals an extra $515 a year in pay to administer a new state proficiency test for 4th graders.

He said discussions of extra pay should have been made during contract negotiations. Moreover, the agreement was an insult to elementary teachers who bear the brunt of the work when test time comes, Mr. Lawrence said.

"I don't understand what the excess workload was on the principals," added Bonnie Bias, a 6th-grade teacher now working in the peer-review program. "I just think this was mishandled."

In an effort to smooth things over, the district made two offers to pay teachers to assist the principals overseeing the tests. But Mr. Lawrence said money was not the issue--it was respect and cooperation.

The teachers' union pulled the evaluation program--a source of pride for the district and the teachers--when school officials agreed to pay the principals.

Superintendent Chrystal Ellis said he was miffed by the union's decision. "If I want to negotiate a supplemental contract with [administrators], I can do that," Mr. Ellis said. "I don't need clearance."

The T.F.T. "should not make this a wedge between teachers and administrators," said David McClellan, the president of the Toledo Association of Administrative Personnel, which adopted a similar evaluation program for principals after the teachers began theirs.

Mr. Ellis contended that peer review was "held hostage" over an issue that had no direct connection to the program.

It was not the first time that happened, he said. The teachers' union had earlier withdrawn from the district's reorganization process, he said, and stopped participating in talks about reducing workers'-compensation claims.

Labor-management relations in the district have soured despite the assistance of the University of Toledo's labor-relations center.

"There's a pattern here," said Mr. McClellan. "And I think it revolves around control." He and others claimed that the teachers' union, which represents several bargaining units, has monopolized the district's time and money.

Mr. Lawrence said such claims are signs of jealousy--and frustration that the best and brightest teachers are no longer looking for a way out of the classroom and into administration.

Despite speculation that peer review could be resurrected, Superintendent Ellis said he will not be asking the teachers' union for any favors. "This is a step backward for us," he said. "But we aren't the ones who put the program in a position where it could be lost or jeopardized."

Toward a Profession

For much of the 1970's, Mr. Lawrence had proposed that experienced teachers evaluate new teachers, or "interns," in the district. His rationale: Only teachers can judge best practices.

The idea seems simple, but at the time it was revolutionary.

"With all the problems we've had getting talent into this business, you had to change the way teachers look at themselves, at each other, at the profession," said Mr. Lawrence, who has headed the American Federation of Teachers affiliate here since 1967.

Jim Duggan, a lawyer, was representing the schools during negotiations in 1981 when Mr. Lawrence pushed hard for the teachers' right to police their own. He said that two earlier teacher strikes had strained relations between the union and the administration and that trust was running low. It was a familiar scene in this blue-collar city of 330,000 with a tradition of labor strife.

"As an outsider, it seemed to me worth exploring" ways to give teachers a bigger stake in the system, Mr. Duggan said. "It seemed a giant step forward in mending a relationship that had been pretty badly hurt." And the teachers' union "was truly interested in the professionalism aspect," added Mr. Duggan, a partner at Shumaker, Loop, & Kendrick, the city's largest law firm.

District officials came around to the idea, especially after Mr. Duggan, suggested that the program include "interventions" in which the consulting teachers would work with veteran teachers who were not performing well.

The administrators' union, however, fought the proposal from the beginning. It would take away much of their responsibility for evaluating teachers during their first year in the classroom.

But in 1981, despite their protests, the program was launched.

Making Their Exits

Since then, more than 1,800 teachers have passed through the peer-review program, according to the union.

Almost 10 percent of those teachers did not make the cut. Most who failed to do so did not have their contracts renewed; others resigned, retired, or were fired.

Under the intern-intervention program, consultants chosen by the union and district are released from their teaching duties for three years and receive a $5,000 annual stipend in addition to their salaries.

The consultants observe and meet with new teachers over the course of a school year, evaluating their classroom-management skills, teaching procedures, and grasp of their subjects. Sometimes, the consulting teachers are paired with experienced colleagues whose performance has been deemed unsatisfactory by school and union officials.

The review board has been tough on consultants, requiring meticulous documentation to support their recommendations, said Molly Drew, a former consulting teacher.

Mr. Black, the consultant and teaching veteran, remembered his first experience with a teacher whose performance did not improve over the year. In the end, Mr. Black recommended that the district look for a replacement.

"I spent about 2 1/2 hours in the room" with the review board, he recalled. "It was grueling."

But it worked, said Mr. Lawrence, the union president, who serves on the board.

"We took all of the politics out of hiring," added Mr. Lawrence, who is expected to retire next year. "We fired the spouses of an administrator, a union officer. We just said there are no exceptions, folks."

Back to the Future

Now, district and union officials are wondering how the schools will cope with the shift.

Mr. Lawrence said he thinks principals will again let unsatisfactory teachers fall through the cracks. "They didn't have a clue about performance standards, and very few teachers were fired," Mr. Lawrence said of the years before peer review.

Mr. McClellan, the head of the administrators' union, admitted that principals are rusty at evaluations. "But we think we ought to have a crack at it," he said.

The program's demise may have hit teachers the hardest, however.

It made a big difference to new teachers, some of whom improved by leaps and bounds with the help of a consultant, several veteran teachers said.

But many teachers supported the union's decision They said the T.F.T. had no other options.

The relationship between the teachers and management was unraveling, they said. And the program that required the most delicate balance of powers had to go.

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