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Published in Print: April 1, 1999, as Peer Pressure

Peer Pressure

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Is it a good idea for teachers to rate their colleagues?

Supporters say teachers would get help from those who know their needs best: other teachers.

In 1987, the Poway Unified School District in California launched a program that lets teachers review their colleagues' performance. Twelve years later, teachers and administrators in the 33,000-student district say the move has paid off handsomely, giving new teachers much-needed help and removing some who belonged in another profession. "Part of the reason I wanted to teach in this district is because I knew that the teacher support here was top-notch," says Kendall Gaspar, who started teaching 5th grade in the suburban San Diego system this fall. "They're here to help us and to make the first year of teaching the best that it can be."

Despite such accolades, the initiative remains California's sole example of a full-fledged peer review program. That could explain why newly elected Governor Gray Davis believes other districts need more than a nudge to try out what many believe is a successful way to evaluate and assist teachers. In one of his first official acts as governor, Davis convened a special legislative session in January to consider his plan for school accountability, including a $100 million peer review initiative that would be the nation's first such statewide effort. Legislation for the program is now on a fast track in the California legislature.

Support for peer review has grown nationally in recent years. The National Education Association has promoted the idea as an example of its "new unionism." And in an era when public education is under pressure to show improvement, some educators believe programs like Poway's may give teachers influence in school accountability.

"I see vouchers and privatization as huge threats," says Don Raczka, president of the Poway Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, which approved of peer review long before the NEA embraced it. "And if we're not doing something to hold ourselves to a higher standard, we're going to get stopped."

But the idea of peer review is not universally embraced. Despite the NEA's endorsement, its California affiliate has been underwhelmed by Davis' plan and is lobbying to change the bill. Educators throughout the state, meanwhile, are left torn by the issue. "Our union clearly wants peer review," says Joshua Pechthalt, an active member of the 34,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles, who himself opposes such programs. "But I think they're worried that [the Davis plan] will engender more opposition to peer review from the members."

The bill pledges to allow "exemplary teachers to assist veteran educators in need of development." Districts would appoint teachers as mentors, who would play the dual roles of coach and evaluator to any teacher referred to the program following the biennial review state law already requires. Mentors would observe the participants, direct their professional development, and then deliver assessments of the teachers to administrators for use in official job evaluations. The idea, supporters say, is for struggling teachers to get help from those who know their needs best-before administrators rate their performance.

Day Higuchi, president of the UTLA, a merged local of the NEA and the AFT, argues that such a peer review program would be a poor imitation of the real thing. For one, it would allow evaluation of veteran teachers. Most programs around the country, including the one in California's Poway district, focus on evaluating new teachers. Secondly, the legislation gives the power to fire teachers to administrators. In Poway, that authority rests with a panel made up chiefly of other teachers and union representatives. (Of some 700 new teachers that have gone through that district's program, 31 have been let go.) And finally, Higuchi objects that the bill compels districts to implement peer review programs. Those that don't would forfeit part of their state aid. "What this says is that you get a bizarre version [of peer review] with a gun to your head," he argues.

Adding to the ambivalence of Higuchi and other teachers, the plan is being pushed by some of their closest political allies. The California Teachers Association, the NEA's state affiliate, was the largest donor to the Davis campaign, helping him win election in November as the Golden State's first Democratic governor in 16 years. And the legislation was introduced by a former UTLA staff member, Speaker of the Assembly Antonio Villaraigosa, another Democrat.

Rather than support or oppose the current bill outright, the CTA's governing body has adopted a wait-and-see posture. The union wants more guarantees that teachers would get assistance before their jobs were jeopardized. Most important, union leaders say, peer review should be optional. "We're not opposed to the concept," says Tommye Hutto, CTA spokeswoman. "But it has to be something that local teachers want."

Officials at UTLA also want more flexibility so that districts that choose to try peer review can pick from a range of options. "Some people would say, 'Peer assistance, yes, but peer review no,'" UTLA member Linda Guthrie says. "That's why it has to be a continuum." Guthrie, who sits on a UTLA committee that's designing a pilot peer review program for the 697,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, says she worries that a state mandate could spark more distrust toward the approach among teachers. "This is seen as a punitive measure coming down from the state," she says.

Some local unions are concerned that the bill calls for implementing the new programs by summer 2001. For many, that's too soon. They say that one of the effects of rushing the program could be to pit colleague against colleague. "These are people who are supposed to be working collegially, and you're talking about them going in and doing a job that administrators already are being paid fairly substantially for," says Marc Knapp, president of the San Diego Education Association.

State officials, however, say there's no time to waste. Teachers' groups "embrace the notion or the concept of peer review," says Sue Burr, California's undersecretary for education, "but would prefer to go more slowly. From our perspective, we want to approach it in a much bolder manner. What's at the core of this is trying to improve our teaching force, and we really can't wait on that."

For others who oppose peer review, the reasons are more tangible. As UTLA member Joshua Pechthalt surveys his classroom at Manual Arts High, he wonders about his union's priorities. The school building sits in a South Central Los Angeles neighborhood that nearly burned to the ground during the riots in 1992. The few instructional materials he's scraped together include a set of textbooks and a map, both on loan from another teacher. He paid for the television set and VCR himself.

Addressing such austerity, he says, should be the unions' main concern, not designing new performance reviews. Peer review "feeds into the notion that the teachers are the problem," he says. "The fact is that teachers are working harder than ever."

--Jeff Archer

Vol. 10, Issue 7, Pages 10-11

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