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Published in Print: January 25, 2006, as Teachers to Conduct Peer Reviews in Chicago

Teachers to Conduct Peer Reviews in Chicago

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A program that puts teachers in charge of evaluating and helping some of their own will get a trial run in Chicago starting next fall.

If the pilot proves a success, Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan wants to see it go systemwide, a spokesman for the 424,000-student district said. Such a move would be by far the largest expansion of a model pioneered in Toledo, Ohio, by its school district and teachers’ union in 1981 and continued there since then.

The expensive arrangement—which uses master teachers who have been released from classroom duties to oversee and help improve the work of new and poorly performing teachers—has spread slowly, even if variations are included. Besides Toledo, where such peer review has long been viewed as a success, forms of the plan have been adopted in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; Rochester, N.Y.; Minneapolis; and at least two midsize California districts. Most notably in recent years, the 139,000-student Montgomery County district in Maryland instituted such a plan in 2000.

Peer review remains a divisive approach to weeding out bad teachers, despite widespread acknowledgment that most current systems of teacher evaluation are superficial and ineffective. ("Teacher-Evaluation System Likely to Be Replaced in Miami District," Dec. 14, 2005.)

Administrators are wary of giving up their legal responsibility for determining employment, while union leaders don’t want to foster divisions in the teacher corps.

Union Involvement

The program in Chicago is one of the changes envisioned for up to a dozen low-performing schools that the Chicago Teachers Union will have a major role in helping under an agreement made with the district last year.

The new evaluation and mentoring program has the strong backing of both Arne Duncan and the city teachers' union, led by President Marilyn Stewart.

Like other district schools that have been earmarked for improvement, those Fresh Start schools will get more say over their budget, staff, and curriculum than has been standard, and they may get more money. But the peer-review program, along with professional development provided by the CTU and its national parent, the American Federation of Teachers, will make the schools distinctive on the Chicago scene.

The district holds high hopes for the program.

“Evaluation as it stands does not really benefit anyone; it’s kind of a cursory review,” said Michael Vaughn, the district spokesman. The best teachers are not recognized, and the worst teachers don’t get the help they need, he explained.

“We’re open to exploring new ideas,” Mr. Vaughn added, “and we’re excited about the model we’re using at the Fresh Start schools.”

Marc Wigler, the CTU’s coordinator for the Fresh Start schools, said new teachers were a particular concern at the schools because turnover hobbles improvement.

“We’ve surveyed new teachers, and they consistently said … they didn’t feel there were resources they could turn to,” Mr. Wigler said. As a result, he noted, they would leave.

The initiative will begin by evaluating and guiding new teachers. Later, the evaluators will work with veterans who have been ordered into the program by either their principals or a committee of teachers, according to Mr. Wigler.

Currently in Chicago, he said, principals evaluate teachers using a pair of checklists after two classroom visits that might last less than 15 minutes each. Principals will continue to evaluate experienced teachers who are not in trouble.

But for teachers participating in peer review, the mentor teacher will be “in that classroom every week,” said Mr. Wigler. “Our goal is certainly not to get rid of teachers.”

Modest Weeding-Out

Such programs do not appear to produce dramatic increases in the number of teachers who are fired, though figures from Toledo and Columbus suggest that 7 percent or 8 percent of new teachers are screened out.

Teachers filling the mentor role will be chosen from the classroom and will be paid extra, “based on the hours worked,” Mr. Wigler said. After two or three years, they will return to the classroom so they can stay a part of the teacher corps.

The mentors will have the power to recommend that a teacher be fired, but a board appointed jointly by the district and the union will make the final decision.

Mr. Wigler said the start-up year in eight schools was expected to cost between $1.1 million and $1.5 million.

Vol. 25, Issue 20, Page 8

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