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Teacher vs. Teacher? Nonsense

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For teachers across America, Independence Day fell a day later than usual this year. On July 5, by a decisive vote of its 9,300-delegate Representative Assembly, the National Education Association gave its blessing to local affiliates that seek to create peer-assistance and -review programs. For those of us who seek an end to the professional isolation of teachers--and to the insult of superficial, drive-by evaluations--this was a declaration of independence. Teachers were voting to take charge of their profession.

Not surprisingly, this historic reversal of long-standing NEA opposition to peer review has stirred fierce resistance and criticism. Despite strong quality safeguards built into this new policy, many within the NEA still challenge it as heresy--a threat to union solidarity. Others allege that it is hypocrisy. Said one veteran teacher-union basher: "I'd like to know how they can take money from teachers for dues and then turn around and help get rid of incompetent teachers. It's a lot of rhetoric."

Heresy? Hype? The fact is that pioneering local affiliates of the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers already are providing extensive mentoring to new teachers. More boldly, they are taking the initiative in improving--and, if necessary, removing--veteran teachers who are failing in the classroom. These locals insist that the litmus test of a union's commitment to quality is its willingness to take a major share of responsibility for the professionalism and competence of its members. In short, if a teacher is struggling in the classroom, we must do something about it.

In Columbus, Ohio, for example, the NEA local designates 26 stand-out teachers to act as full-time "consulting teachers." Under terms of the Columbus contract, one of these consulting teachers is assigned to every newly hired teacher. The consultants provide intensive mentoring to newcomers in order to increase the odds of a successful first year, and they have a major say in whether a newcomer is retained. This first-year mentoring has been so successful that 85 percent of new hires are still teaching in Columbus five years later. (In other urban school districts, by contrast, only 50 percent of new hires are still on the job after three years.)

Consulting teachers also intervene to assist veteran teachers who are experiencing severe difficulties in the classroom. This intensive assistance continues for an open-ended period of time, so long as the teacher is making progress. But in cases where a veteran teacher's shortcomings remain severe, the consulting teacher--who, I stress, is a member of our local union--compassionately counsels him or her to leave the profession and, if necessary, recommends dismissal to a joint union-district governing board.

Should we avert our eyes from a colleague whose shortcomings in the classroom are depriving children of a decent education?

This is courageous work. It forces educators out of their comfort zone, and can entail political risk for teacher-leaders within their local unions. But the practical reality is that this peer-intervention process works--and enjoys broad support among educators in districts where it is being used. After seven years of peer assistance and review in Columbus, polls showed that 90 percent of local teachers supported it. A separate poll found that 90 percent of Columbus administrators supported it, up from 70 percent at the program's outset.

Is it taboo-breaking to acknowledge that there are some struggling teachers in our ranks? Of course not. Every profession has a small percentage of people who are not up to the job. But unlike most occupations that aspire to elite professional status, teachers do not have a process for helping struggling colleagues "within the family." Lawyers, accountants, and doctors all consider it a cardinal function of their professional associations to discipline members whose incompetence brings discredit on the profession or harms the public. This oversight is performed by peers, and judgment is passed on the basis of established professional standards.

Nonetheless, many teachers object to the idea of their local union passing judgment on a member's competence. As one critic put it: "How can a union protect all members if one contributes to the firing of another? How can a union achieve strength if union member is pitted against union member?"

If in fact a local union is only "passing judgment" on members' competence, and not assisting teachers who need help, I too would be opposed. That is why I insist--as does our Columbus local--that any peer-assistance and -review program be a truly comprehensive program of professional development whose aim, first and foremost, is to help teachers improve. Any decision to recommend dismissal or to counsel a teacher out of the profession must come only as a last resort--after many months of peer assistance--and only in cases where a teacher's failure is clearly beyond repair.

What is the alternative for us as professionals? Should we avert our eyes from a colleague whose shortcomings in the classroom are depriving children of a decent education? I have yet to meet a teacher who wants to work with such a colleague, or who cheers when a union prevents an incompetent teacher from being dismissed.

Yet in most school districts today, union and management are trapped in a perverse lose-lose predicament: They have no proactive process for helping a failing teacher improve. But if the district attempts to dismiss such a teacher, the union often mounts an expensive, time-consuming legal defense to ensure that the teacher's rights are protected.

No one underestimates the challenge of replicating the peer-assistance and -review concept beyond the relative handful of districts now using it. Indeed, this is why the new NEA policy expressly leaves the choice of creating such a program to the discretion of local affiliates. Superb local union leadership, adequate financing, and a healthy relationship with management are not enough. A program of peer assistance and review also must include strong quality-assurance safeguards, including demanding criteria for the selection of consulting teachers and rigorous guidelines to prevent unwarranted referrals of veteran teachers.

In addition, the peer-review concept demands a genuinely radical rethinking of the traditional division of roles within a school. The current "us vs. them" mentality casts the union in the role of defender interposed between teachers (the potential victims) and administrators (the evaluators). Teachers remain largely passive--pawns whose fate is determined by others.

By contrast, in a successful peer-assistance and -review program, teachers take charge of their own profession. They put professional development at the center of their local union's activities. They provide expert assistance to teachers who need help--often rescuing and revitalizing careers that would otherwise collapse. And they also have the courage to counsel failing teachers to leave the profession in cases where sustained peer assistance is unavailing. Indeed, they view this self-policing as essential to the integrity of their profession.

Peer assistance and review is tough-minded unionism at its best.

Moreover, peer assistance and review in no way compromises existing due process rights of teachers facing dismissal. These are elemental rights and protections that any union--traditional or "new"--must insist on for all employees. The practical experience in Columbus and elsewhere, however, is that peer assistance and review can give all parties--employee, union, and management--positive alternatives to the litigation briar patch of existing procedures.

Some teachers criticize peer assistance and review as "cleaning up messes created by management." But while many school principals do indeed make bad hiring decisions and bungle the evaluation process, this must not be an excuse for washing our hands of the problem. To the contrary, it summons teachers and their unions to stake out a more robust role in organizing their schools for excellence. As hundreds of thousands of former workers in the steel and auto industries can testify, it is a foolish union indeed that dismisses issues of quality as "management's problem."

Peer assistance and review is tough-minded unionism at its best. It is also a matter of enlightened self-interest, inasmuch as the economic security of our members is linked inextricably to the success of public education as an institution. As Charles Kerchner of Claremont Graduate School aptly puts it: "The only real protection for teachers--including their jobs and pensions--comes from publicly acknowledged high performance."


Bob Chase is the president of the National Education Association in Washington.

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