A Jury Of Your Peers?

May 01, 1999 4 min read
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TEACHERS EVALUATING TEACHERS: Peer Review and the New Unionism, by Myron Lieberman. (Transaction, $17.95.) Despite polls demonstrating that teachers are wary of programs where they evaluate their colleagues, peer review has become a cause célèbre of the late 1990s. Both national teachers’ unions endorse it as a way to professionalize teaching, and California, the nation’s bellwether, recently became the first state to require peer review in all districts.

Lieberman, a former teacher unionist turned ferocious union critic, sees peer review as a public relations stunt at best and an outright fraud at worst. By endorsing peer review, the unions look as if they’re finally addressing the issue of teacher quality instead of simply protecting teachers’ “rights” and jobs. But in reality, Lieberman argues, peer review gives the unions more power, putting their members in virtual control of teacher evaluation and dismissal.

This is a bad idea for a couple of reasons, Lieberman contends. For one thing, school principals lose the capacity to evaluate the teachers they are supposed to inform and motivate. For another, union members find themselves in the awkward position of judging-and in some instances counseling out of the profession-fellow members, something antithetical to unionism. Union-sponsored peer review, Lieberman writes, is like a lawyer telling you that he will represent your interests but also “ensure that you do not take advantage of various legal loopholes to avoid the outcome you may deserve.”

Lieberman also notes that peer reviewers are often outstanding veterans. But instead of working with kids, they spend their time observing and evaluating colleagues. What’s more, these teachers escape evaluation themselves for the term of their assignment, usually two or three years. Hence, Lieberman argues, peer review may actually reduce the new accountability unions say they want.

Is Lieberman fair in such criticisms? Certainly peer review has not proved a particularly effective way to usher lousy senior teachers from the class room. Over an 11-year period, the Columbus, Ohio, schools dismissed only two veteran teachers through the district’s peer review and intervention program. And the Toledo, Ohio, district, which initiated peer review in 1981, dismissed a total of seven teachers over 12 years. Such numbers suggest that teachers may understandably have a hard time effectively judging colleagues with whom they’ve spent years swapping family stories in the lunchroom.

But as a way to evaluate and help beginning teachers, peer review makes good sense. Anecdotal accounts suggest that new teachers need and welcome assistance from more-experienced colleagues, even when those colleagues render a negative evaluation. In his book, Lieberman claims that principals can be trained to assist and evaluate novices just as effectively as veteran teachers, but this seems unrealistic considering the administrator’s workload and increasing distance from everyday classroom life.

Peer review may not guarantee a more effective teaching force from top to bottom. But it hardly seems, as Lieberman suggests, a mere union scam.

SPINNING WHEELS: The Politics of Urban School Reform, by Frederick Hess. (Brookings Institution, $16.95.) The title of this captivating study of school reform in 57 urban districts perfectly sums up Hess’ findings. For all their talk of change, districts and their chief administrators have little to show. Part of the problem, Hess believes, is that reform is rarely rooted in a considered plan for long-term improvement. More often, he says, it’s a frenzy of conflicting initiatives put in place by officials with suspect motives.

As Hess sees it, school reform-whether the latest multicultural curriculum or a site-based management plan-is largely a symbolic activity that gives district superintendents the opportunity to say: “Look at me; I am making change.” He writes: “Most reform is not a serious attempt to change teaching and learning in the classroom but is intended to bolster the status of district policymakers.”

Although superintendents take quite a lashing here, Hess admits that they are often handcuffed by central-office bureaucracies and immutable union contracts. Unable to initiate substantial change, they can do little more than rearrange the educational furniture. By the time these reforms are exposed as failures, their architects have moved on, often to new, better-paying jobs.

HISTORY AND EDUCATIONAL POLICYMAKING, by Maris Vinovskis. (Yale University Press, $40.) Scholar Vinovskis’ book is a plea not for more education research-there’s already an abundance of that-but for more studies of a comprehensive, sustained nature that can guide education policymaking. Lacking historical perspective, policymakers tend to throw their support to popular programs that may or may not be effective.

But even when longitudinal studies do exist, policymakers often ignore their findings. Numerous research studies of Head Start, for example, have shown that it has had, at best, only a modest long-term impact on children’s learning. The same can be said, Vinovskis asserts, of the Even Start program, which is based on the assumption that improving parents’ literacy skills will raise their children’s achievement. Studies have shown that the program doesn’t produce the desired results, but Congress continues to fund it because of isolated success stories.

Indeed, as Vinovskis demonstrates, many of our national education goals focus on the importance of an early academic start for children, even though research has repeatedly shown that most early academic gains are lost in later years. Vinovskis’ message, then, is a familiar one: Those who forget-or ignore-the past are doomed to repeat it.

--David Ruenzel

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