Fate of Peer Review Rests With NEA Locals

By Ann Bradley — August 06, 1997 5 min read

“We got the duty-free lunch,” Ms. Bacon said of early union struggles. “Now, we need to move into the really tough stuff--what we need to do as a union to drive student achievement.”

The Representative Assembly’s voice vote in favor of peer-assistance and -review programs, which enable teachers to help new colleague and those struggling in the classroom, isn’t a mandate. Individual affiliates will have to negotiate such programs with their districts, either through collective bargaining or some other formal agreement.

Still, the NEA’s vote last month, after a spirited 2 1/2-hour debate, clears the way for interested members to pursue the programs. And related resolutions adopted by the more than 9,000 delegates who attended the annual convention in Atlanta will allow the 2.3 million-member union’s headquarters to provide assistance and information about successful models.

To date, the number of teachers’ unions sponsoring peer-review programs is small. Most are affiliated with the 940,000-member American Federation of Teachers. But even with the AFT’s encouragement, the programs have failed to spread widely.

John Grossman, the president of the Columbus Education Association, an NEA affiliate in Ohio that has run a peer-review program for 12 years, aid his phone has been ringing steadily with requests for information since the vote.

The Columbus association--once considered a renegade for pursuing the program against official NEA policy--has ordered a reprint of 1,000 copies of its guidelines to meet the demand.

Mr. Grossman believes the fears some members expressed during the debate about peer review stemmed from their lack of understanding of how programs operate.

“When the national organization has been on record in opposition to it for so long, that has crippled their ability to even disseminate information on it,” he said.

No ‘Betrayal’

The measure was highly controversial among the members gathered in Atlanta; it stirred particularly vocal opposition from the union’s California, New Jersey, and Wisconsin state affiliates. Critics argued that the programs, by giving teachers a chance to evaluate one another, could pit members against each other and would undermine the union’s traditional role of protecting teachers.

Some NEA members in states without collective bargaining laws have expressed concern that the national union’s shift means it is moving away from advocacy for such laws. But President Bob Chase insists that is not the case.

Others are nervous about any link between peer-assistance and -review program and teacher tenure. But teachers still would enjoy due process rights under the programs.

The California delegation was narrowly divided against the resolution, which was initiated by the NEA’s board of directors. Wisconsin and New Jersey were adamantly opposed.

Dennis Testa, the president of the New Jersey Education Association, told delegates that he wanted to continue to be teachers’ “protector.”

Karen Joseph, a spokeswoman for the NJEA, noted that state law prohibits negotiations over teachers’ evaluations.

In his keynote address, Mr. Chase argued that the union can provide teachers with assistance--and even counsel them out of the profession if needed--"without betraying our principles a dedicated trade unionists or compromising our members’ right to due process.”

The vote on peer review was seen as a crucial first test of Mr. Chase’s leadership--particularly his call for a “new unionism” that focuses on the quality of teaching and public education as well as members’ rights.

Such a transformation, Mr. Chase warned, will not come without a struggle equal to the wrenching change that the organization underwent in the 1960s with the advent of collective bargaining for teachers.

‘Defining Moment’

The change is partly a response to “anti-public-school sentiment,” Mr. Chase said in an interview after his address. But it is also motivated by pressure from members themselves who want the association to provide them with professional assistance, he said.

The ongoing debate about “new unionism,” which Mr. Chase launched in a speech this past winter, quickly centered on peer-review programs. (See Education Week, Feb. 12, 1997.) But the NEA’s professional-standards and -practice committee also is working on a document that spells out actions that affiliates can take at all levels to promote high standards in the profession.

The union’s board of directors is expected to take action on the document at its December meeting.

“This is a defining moment,” Lea Schelke, a Trenton, Mich., high school teacher who chairs the committee, said of the delegates’ endorsement of peer review. “It shifts the world for our new members. They appreciate all of us old workhorses who got the salaries and protections they don’t want to walk away from--but they want more.”

The resolution that delegates approved spells out guidelines for peer-assistance and -review programs. It replaces a previous NEA policy against teachers’ playing a role in evaluating one another.

The new policy includes a 13-point set of criteria for such programs, stating that their primary purpose should be to provide teachers with help. They also should be collectively bargained or created through an association-district agreement in nonbargaining states, the resolution says, and be governed by a board made up of at least half, or a majority, of union representatives.

The consulting teachers chosen to work with their peers, the policy says, should be properly compensated and given adequate time to do the job.

Separate resolutions approved by the delegates will allow the NEA’s staff to help interested affiliates set up such programs.

Despite the opposition from the California Teacher’s Association, the San Francisco teachers’ union is phasing in a peer-assistance program for new teachers.

This school year, the 75 teachers in the program will be evaluated by their mentors. And further down the road, senior teacher in the district could receive assistance, said Kent Mitchell, the president of United Educators of San Francisco, which is affiliated with both the NEA and the AFT.

NEA members in another populous state unanimously sought the change. The Florida delegation was united in support of the resolution, said Linda Bacon, the president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. In her district, which includes St. Petersburg, the union has been involved in inducting new teachers into the profession in partnership with the administration and two state universities.

“We got the duty-free lunch,” Ms. Bacon said of early union struggles. “Now, we need to move into the really tough stuff--what we need to do as a union to drive student achievement.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 1997 edition of Education Week