Education Opinion

Response: How Peer Assistance Can Improve Teacher Practice

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 05, 2013 11 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the second post in a two-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here)

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. 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.

Part One included a brief introduction to PAR from Dean Vogel, President of the California Teachers Association, and 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 explained the PAR programs in their districts.

This Part Two post includes American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten providing her perspective and Julie Sellers telling about the program in Cincinnati. In addition, reader Marie Costanza shares about the PAR program in Rochester, New York and Brenda Sherry offers her experience in Ontario, Canada.

Response From Randi Weingarten

Randi Weingarten is President of The American Federation Of Teachers:

Learning doesn’t stop when we graduate from high school or college. Teachers want and need to be lifelong learners and grow throughout their careers. And who better to guide that growth than experienced, expert teachers? It’s even more important these days with budget cuts to professional development programs and the uneven and flawed rollout of revamped teacher evaluation policies. That’s why the American Federation of Teachers has long supported peer assistance and review (PAR) programs, which have been shown to be a highly effective way to foster ongoing professional improvement and growth for teachers.

Peer assistance and review helps new teachers escape the “sink-or-swim” approach that too often mars entry into our profession. It provides guidance and support from accomplished colleagues when teachers struggle to master this highly complex endeavor. It identifies and counsels out those who are not suited to the teaching profession. Following high-quality mentoring, it calls for teachers who fail to meet performance standards to be non-renewed or terminated. And it can help retain teachers who otherwise might be driven out by frustration or isolation.

Peer review can have positive effects on school culture and teacher professionalism. Teachers have a vehicle by which to improve their practice, and to support their colleagues. They own the quality of our profession rather than being told what to do by people who often have no classroom experience, which both hampers quality and breeds resentment. And this highly collaborative process can lead to further cooperation between teachers and school administrators.

Polls of AFT members reveal resounding support for making the quality of what we do top union priorities. The collective bargaining process provides an ideal vehicle for the union and management to put in place the elements of an effective PAR program. The key to strengthening teaching and learning, as we say in the AFT, is implementing reforms “with us, not to us.”

In the United States, half of all teachers leave in the first five years because they lack support or have become frustrated. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future found that teacher turnover costs the nation $7.34 billion each year through the endless cycle of recruiting, hiring and training new teachers. Implementing PAR programs--with adequate financial support guaranteed through the regular district budget--might seem like a nonstarter in these times of fiscal austerity. But that is penny-wise and pound foolish. The reality is that school systems have a responsibility to invest in high-quality teaching; they can’t afford not to address the educational and economic costs of rampant teacher turnover.

Response From Julie Sellers

Julie Sellers taught Elementary School in the Cincinnati Public Schools for 20 years before being elected President of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, Local 1520 in 2009. She is serving her second term as President of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. During her time in the classroom, she served as CFT Building Representative and a member of CFT’s Executive Council. Julie participates on many School Board Committees, and recently negotiated a new CFT Collective Bargaining Contract with Cincinnati Public Schools.

Julie is an Executive Board member of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, the Greater Cincinnati AFL-CIO Labor Council, Mayerson Academy & STRIVE. She is a member of numerous community organizations, and serves on many State Level Committees and also serves on AFT’s Program and Policy Committee:

In 1983, then-president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers (CFT) Tom Mooney proposed a peer assistance and review (PAR) program for the district. He saw the model used successfully in Toledo, and he was able to get Cincinnati teachers on board and develop a strong relationship with then-Superintendent Lee Etta Powell. After the program was approved in 1985, support grew from teachers and administration, as well as the public and media.

Cincinnati’s system has been successful and thriving for many years, in part due to its connection with the district’s Teacher Evaluation System (TES). Cincinnati implemented TES in 1997, and it now is a foundation for the PAEP program (peer review system). Both TES and PAEP have been true collaborative efforts between the union and the district. The long-term and jointly supported efforts have been highlights of the district’s work in improving teacher practice and student achievement.

PAEP in Cincinnati utilizes the district’s expert teachers to mentor and evaluate their peers. Consulting Teachers (CTs) and Teacher Evaluators (TEs) in Cincinnati serve three-year terms, typically leaving the classroom to work in a full-time position and returning to the classroom when their term has ended. CTs undergo rigorous and continuous training to provide new teachers and struggling tenured teachers with assistance to help them meet standards and improve their practice.

Throughout the school year, CTs offer teachers intensive support to help them meet the district’s standards. These standards are based on the Charlotte Danielson model and are highlighted in “The Placemat,” a chart that includes strong teaching standards and the rubrics of TES. CTs support their teachers using this rubric, and the alignment between the two systems allows for a great deal of consistency throughout their career in Cincinnati. The CTs prepare evaluative summaries based on their work with teachers to present to a Peer Review Panel with recommendations. The Panel, comprised of union and district administration representatives, uses those recommendations to make employment decisions for participating teachers.

Over the years the Cincinnati PAEP program has been tested, revised, and proven to be an effective process for improving teacher practice. Even with changes in union or district leadership, the systems have continued to move forward and grow. This is a research-based system, and it continues to be a subject of studies to understand how peer assistance can help improve teacher practice. A recent study from Harvard University showed that teachers who perform well in the system have higher rates of student achievement. Residual growth for students is also apparent from this system, with students who have high-performing teachers showing growth over the following five years.

Unfortunately, despite the ongoing collaboration between the union and district that have helped these evaluation systems thrive, outside factors are threatening their success. Ohio SB 316 was signed into state law in June 2012, affecting how teacher evaluations are conducted in the state. The district school board passed a policy requiring student growth measures to account for 50% of teacher evaluations, forcing Cincinnati to restructure its flourishing, successful system. The district has also cut budgets this year on the PAEP program, cutting the number of full-time CTs down to only 4 full-time and 23 teachers in part-time roles trying to fill the entire caseload. Many new hires will not be able to receive assistance by a CT during their first year in a classroom.

Despite the ongoing collaborative efforts between the union and the district, and the research showing that those efforts have made a positive impact on teaching and learning, Cincinnati’s PAEP program and teacher evaluation system are being torn apart. I believe that it is heartbreaking that the district has allowed our proven system (where students learned more in the years after our teachers received a comprehensive evaluation) to be decimated and replaced with a system that does not promote supporting teacher development. These policy changes in the district seem to ignore the research and could greatly impede the improvements that PAEP and TES have made for teachers and students.

Response From Marie Costanza

Marie Costanza is Director of the Rochester City School District/Rochester Teachers Association Collaborative Career in Teaching Program:

The Rochester City School District in collaboration with the Rochester Teachers Association(local union) has had a PAR program in place for 26 years. The Career in Teaching (CIT) Program, is overseen by a joint labor-management governing board with six members selected by the Superintendent and six members selected by the Union President. The goal of the program has always been to retain effective teachers.

Since the program began, the district has had an 88% average retention rate of new teachers. To accomplish this goal, Mentors (Peer Reviewers) receive extensive monthly professional development in peer coaching skills in order to provide effective assessment and feedback of their colleagues. Mentors evaluate their peers using evidence gathered from informal and formal observations. They use the New York State approved Danielson Teachscape Rubric, which includes clear elements on which teachers are evaluated in the following four domains: Planning/Preparation, Classroom Environment, Instruction and Professional Responsibilities. During their forums, through the use of video tapes of colleagues, they practice and discuss their assessments.

The board members review status reports written by the mentors, conduct observations of the mentors, and provide feedback. The relationship with administrators is considered important. Mentors maintain a positive relationship with and a professional distance from Administrators. They balance the administrator’s interest in the teacher’s progress with their obligation to maintain confidentiality. The board reviews the administrator evaluations and the mentor assessment reports. At the end of the year the following data is collected to measure the effectiveness of the program: quantitative data re: the one year and five year retention rate of teachers and qualitative survey data is collected from teachers and administrators re: the effectiveness of the Mentors. Additionally, Mentors complete a self-reflection based on a Rubric of Mentor Skills Traits. More information about the RCSD/RTA PAR program can be found here.

Response From Brenda Sherry

Brenda Sherry is an Ontario teacher who has spent 20 years as a classroom teacher and 5 years as a technology coach with Upper Grand District School Board in Guelph, Ontario:

This monograph, called Collaborative Teacher Inquiry, outlines some of the professional learning that teachers in Ontario having been doing recently. We are placing more attention on evidence-based, job-embedded teacher learning that is relevant to classroom practice and honours the complex task of teaching and the unique setting of each classroom. This collaborative process of professional dialogue focuses on the examination of student work as an impetus for questions about the needs of students, and this leads us to questions about our own teaching practice and our learning needs as teachers. On the Ontario Ministry website you’ll see more formal protocols for three kinds of collaborative inquiry: Collaborative Inquiry for Learning - Mathematics (CIL-M), Early Primary Collaborative Inquiry (EPCI), and Student Work Study Teachers (SWST).

Thanks to Randi, Julie, Marie and Brenda for contributing their responses.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of seven published by published by Jossey-Bass.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email....

And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first year of this blog, you can check them out here. You can also see a list of the ten most popular posts in 2012.

Look for the next “question of the week” in in a few days....

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.