Education Opinion

Response: Creating a Culture of Improvement With Peer Assistance & Review (PAR)

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 01, 2013 12 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series on this topic)

Last week’s question was:

What Is Peer Assistance & Review (PAR) & How Does It Work?

In the ongoing teacher evaluation debate, Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) is often highlighted by educators as an effective tool for teacher support and development. However, many others are unclear about how it actually works.

This week’s two-part series features contributions from leading advocates and creators of PAR programs throughout the United States. I will also be publishing readers’ comments in Part Two. With those articulate voices here, I can only offer some additional resources that I’ve compiled that readers might find useful -- The Best Resources On Peer Assistance & Review (PAR) Programs.

Today’s post starts with a brief introduction to PAR from Dean Vogel, President of the California Teachers Association. Then Shannan Brown and Cheryl Dultz from the San Juan Unified School District in California and Doug Prouty from the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland explain the PAR programs in their districts.

Part Two will include Julie Sellers telling about the program in Cincinnati and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten providing her perspective.

Response From Dean Vogel

Dean E. Vogel is president of the California Teachers Association, a kindergarten teacher and a member of the California’s Educator Excellence Task Force, which outlined the importance of Peer Assistance and Review in the recently released report, “Greatness by Design.” (Editor’s Note: I served on the Task Force with Dean):

Quality and tailored support by colleagues centered on teacher growth is a cornerstone of the teaching profession. This type of collegiality typically occurs informally in classrooms, the cafeteria, by the copier, and even on the playground as teachers meet to discuss methods, pedagogy and curriculum. Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program provides formal processes and structures to the informal support that occurs every day in schools.

California’s PAR Program, created through legislation in 1999, is a cooperative effort by local unions and school districts to assist classroom teachers to improve teaching and learning. PAR is a major step in expanding the authority of teachers to manage their own profession by utilizing their expertise to provide collegial support, assistance, and review with the goal of helping teachers develop practices to improve instruction and student performance. Effective PAR models are fully funded, provide quality support to teachers and are collectively bargained by educators and the district.

Despite their success, due to state budget cuts, many California school districts have been forced to discontinue their PAR programs. If we want to get beyond the rhetoric of teacher effectiveness, PAR is a great place to start.

Response From Shannan Brown and Cheryl Dultz

Shannan Brown is President of the San Juan Teachers Association and a 2011 California Teacher of the Year. Cheryl Dultz is the Lead Consulting Teacher for the San Juan Unified PAR Program and a 2007 Sacramento County Teacher of the Year. Both are members of ACT, Accomplished California Teachers (Editor’s Note: I’m an ACT member, also):

Public education in the US is under tremendous pressure to improve. International indicators, as well as continuous achievement gaps, have sent states and districts scurrying for answers. In some places, people are ‘Racing to the Top’ while others (usually outside of education) are looking for quick fixes by imposing reforms top down. While both of these approaches gain the lion’s share of media attention, they have focused largely on accountability. In a few places, however, educational transformation is quietly underway that focuses on continual improvement of practice. The San Juan Unified School District, a large suburban district outside Sacramento, CA, is one such place.

San Juan is undergoing a massive change process lead jointly by the San Juan Teachers Association (SJTA) and district management. Guided by the district’s Strategic Plan and shared values regarding student learning, SJTA and SJUSD are working collaboratively to continually improve teaching and learning. The magnitude of this change effort is enormous, but we are confident that we are on the right path. Our confidence is predicated upon many joint efforts over the years, but the success of one initiative in particular is the cornerstone of our approach: Peer Assistance and Review (PAR). Its merit has been most recently substantiated in Peer Review: Getting Serious about Teacher Support and Evaluation (Koppich & Humphrey 2011).

Much of the success of our PAR program is based on creating a culture where adults (and ultimately students) use a variety of sources for feedback to reflect and build a habit of continuous improvement. Attention to strong instructional practices may not be new when thinking about the kinds of classrooms we want for our students, but using those same practices to guide improvement efforts for teachers is not the norm. Our PAR program is intentionally based on a strong foundation of solid instructional practice: consistent individualized feedback, ownership of one’s work, high engagement, autonomy, accountability, and collaboration .

Essentially, the PAR program provides intensive support to struggling teachers. The struggling teacher is originally placed into PAR after receiving an unsatisfactory evaluation from his or her site administrator in two or more standards from the California Standards for the Teaching Profession. A consulting teacher (CT), who was selected through a rigorous application process, is then assigned to the now ‘participating’ teacher and an improvement plan is created based on the teacher’s needs.The CT then works collaboratively with the teacher and tailors the needed support to address all areas identified in the improvement plan. Some examples of support may include: CTs modeling lessons, co-teaching, coaching of the participating teacher with targeted feedback, peer observations of exemplary teachers and analysis of student work. While the CT is the primary support provider for a participating teacher, the PAR panel is the governing body over the PAR program.

The Governance Panel consists of four teachers and three administrators and is co-chaired by the President of SJTA and the Superintendent’s appointee. The CT and the participating teacher meet with the Panel on a regular basis to share the teacher’s progress based on evidence gathered from their collaborative work. The Panel ensures that the CT is doing everything possible to support the teacher and also facilitates frank conversation with the participating teacher in areas still in need of improvement. These practices are based on our belief that teachers should receive intensive individualized support to improve because student success is the responsibility of all members of an educational system.

Most teachers complete our PAR process and have significantly improve their instructional practice thus meeting standards. They are allowed to exit the program and return to a regular evaluation cycle. Some participants far exceed their improvement plan. They not only exit the program, many go on to become instructional leaders at their own sites. There are instances, however, in which a teacher is unwilling or unable to meet the requirements of the improvement plan. In those rare cases, the teacher is counseled out of the profession or recommended for dismissal by the PAR panel.

Our PAR program represents a microcosm of what can be accomplished when the collective focus is placed on continual improvement of practice and capacity building. In the end, accountability is a product of our work, but not the goal.

”...the Consulting Teacher’s evaluations were focused on improving the participating teacher’s practice and not just on identifying the problems.”

Koppich and Humphrey conclude (Humphrey & Koppich 2011).

Real educational transformation can occur if the national focus is moved beyond using accountability as a weapon of punishment to it becoming a tool used for progress. In San Juan, we strive to keep continual improvement of teaching and learning at the center of our work and as the vehicle for implementing change.

Response From Doug Prouty

Doug Prouty is the President of the Montgomery County Education Association, the NEA local for Montgomery County, Maryland. He previously served as the Vice President of MCEA and as the Coordinator for the Teacher Professional Growth System for Montgomery County Public Schools. In this role, he served as the Co-Chair of the Teacher Peer Assistance and Review Panel. Doug is also sharing two links -- one is to the brochure MCEA gives all new teachers each August about the PAR program, and the other is to the handbook for the Teacher Professional Growth System:

The Peer Assistance and Review program has been operating in Montgomery County Public Schools since the 2000-1 school year. The program is a partnership between MCPS and the Montgomery County Education Association. The two parties, along with the Montgomery County Association of Administrators and Principals, designed the program over a two year period prior to its implementation over three years starting in 2000.

The inception of the program was concurrent with the adoption of a new teacher evaluation system that utilizes six performance standards which were adapted from the National Board standards. The first four measure instruction and can be summarized as Expectations, Planning, Classroom Environment, and Assessment. The remaining two are Professional Development and Conduct. Both observations and the final evaluation report are written in a narrative format using evidence, which consists of direct observations of the teacher’s practice.

The PAR program employs a team of Consulting Teachers, expert practitioners whose job for three years is to provide support and feedback to all novice teachers as well as to underperforming teachers, who have been referred to the program due to a below standards evaluation. A referral to the program does not result in automatic inclusion- each below standard evaluation is reviewed to ensure compliance with the process and then a CT is assigned to conduct two observations of the teacher in order to make a recommendation to the Panel for inclusion in the program or not.

The CT’s come from the classroom to the job and agree to return to the classroom for two years when they complete their three years. The team is half elementary and half secondary, with teachers who have representative experience to match them as closely as possible to their client teacher’s assignments. The CT’s create their own training each year- the first and second year members of the team design a new training each year that reflects the changing dynamics of the program. Each CT also takes two courses entitled Observing and Analyzing Teaching, which are required of all qualified observers in MCPS. The team is led by two Lead CT’s, who have a reduced caseload (normally 16-20 client teachers) in order to lead and coach the team.

The CT team’s work is overseen by the PAR Panel, which is comprised of eight teachers and eight principals who are recommended by their union and appointed by the Superintendent. The Panel is led by two co-chairs who are the Vice Presidents of the teacher and principal unions. Eight PAR pairs (each with one teacher and one principal, again half from ES and half MS/HS), are assigned to work with a group of three-four CT’s. The PAR Panel meets each month and the Par Pair groups get together at these meetings to share updates on the clients of each CT in the group. They act as a Professional Learning Community to share advice. The entire Panel hears reports from the CT’s in December on any client who might be rated below standard by either the CT or the principal at the end of the year. The CT’s do not make any employment decisions- the Panel makes recommendations to the Superintendent.

There are two PAR Panel meetings to hear reports about clients rated below standard in March (probationary) and May (tenured). At the initial meeting, the CT presents data that he/she has collected on the client and reviews a form submitted by the principal which indicates whether the principal agrees with the CT’s rating or not. The CT and principal consult throughout the year but each keeps a separate data set as to the teacher’s performance so the Panel has two independent data sources on each teacher’s performance. After the CT’s presentation to the Panel, it makes a tentative recommendation for the client teacher. The recommendation can be to successfully release the client teacher from the PAR program, to continue the teacher for another year of support if the teacher is making progress but is not yet meeting standard, or non-renewal/dismissal. The principal has the right to appeal any recommendation; the teacher to appeal an adverse employment recommendation. If either party chooses to appeal, both are invited to make separate presentations at the Panel’s second meeting of the month.

Each union provides support to its members throughout the year to ensure the process is fair and transparent. Coaching is provided by union staff to prepare a member to appear before the Panel. After both parties have presented, the Panel deliberates and makes a final recommendation to the Superintendent. Tenured teachers have the right to appeal dismissal to the local and state boards of education and to the Court of Appeals. In the twelve years of the program, no PAR Panel recommendation has been overturned.

The program has resulted in increased student achievement and graduation rates, as well as higher retention of teachers in their first five years- MCPS sees 35% leave in that time frame, as compared to 50% nationally. Client teachers report feeling more prepared more quickly and feeling that they have the support needed to improve those areas in which they are below standard. We are proud of the fact that the PAR program is a systematic way of teachers taking responsibility for the quality of teaching in MCPS.

Thanks to Dean, Shannan, Cheryl, and Doug for contributing their responses.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. As I mentioned earlier, those comments will be included in Part Two.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.