Everything You Wanted to Know About Peer-Assistance and -Review...But Were Afraid to Ask

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 26, 2009 3 min read
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That could have been the title, anyway, of this Web site on peer-assistance and -review programs.

Created by the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, the Web site is part of an ongoing research investigation that’s being headed up by Susan Moore Johnson. It is probably the most extensive resource in existence on the PAR process, and contains all the research that the team has done. (You can find a summary report in PDF format on the Web page, but if you’re interested in just one or two areas, try the tabs on the left.)

The Web site serves both as a primer for those new to the PAR process and a resource for districts that are considering setting up such a system.

Moore Johnson and her team examined the peer-assistance and -review programs in seven districts: Cincinnati and Toledo, Ohio; Minneapolis; Montgomery County, Md.; Rochester and Syracuse, N.Y.; and San Juan, Calif.

In brief, PAR programs assign novice teachers (and in some cases, struggling veteran teachers) with a “consulting teacher” peer who provides direct classroom support and evaluation. The consulting teacher files reports with a PAR panel consisting of district officials and teachers. Later, the consulting teacher reports back to a PAR panel with a recommendation on whether a teacher should receive tenure (or in the case of a veteran teacher, whether he or she should be retained or dismissed).

There’s really far more here than I can put into a blog entry, but here are some things from the report that I think are worthy of some additional discussion:

--Pretty much all the districts studied have some kind of professional teaching standards against which teachers’ performance is measured. Typically, there is a very strong understanding about what good teaching looks like and what a struggling teacher needs to do if (s)he isn’t meeting the standards. In other words, peer review probably won’t work where such standards are not in place.
-- None of the seven programs requires student-achievement data to be included in the PAR reports that the panels review before making their decisions, although consulting teachers in a few districts like Montgomery County informally review the data.
--Some of the districts studied give teachers a one-person majority on the PAR panel. Others don’t. It would be interesting to see if that affects the decisionmaking process or the rates of tenure-granting and dismissal.
--Some of the districts include principal evaluations in the material reviewed by the PAR panel; others don’t. Again, it would be interesting to see how this affects the character of the process. One of the unions’ complaints about principal evaluations is that principals can be arbitrary, so evaluations by both CTs and principals have a “checks and balance” flavor about them.
--Union officials, administrators, and CTs all say that there are more failing teachers in schools than are currently being referred to PAR. So while the programs seem successful, to some extent, they may not have “penetrated” to the point where all parties view them as a viable pathway for teacher improvement and/or discipline.
--Successful PAR programs seem not to have been “compromises” arrived at in bargaining but a reform strategy that was carefully articulated beforehand and included as a part of a labor-management collaboration.
--What do CTs do after their terms are over? They’re frequently encouraged to go back to classrooms, but some districts allow them to enter nonteaching roles in schools, and others to go to administration.

Much much more on the Web site. Check it out. And lest you think PAR is old news, remember that the American Federation of Teachers is pushing hard on peer review, and Obama even brought it up in his November education speech.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.