Peer Pressure

By David Ruenzel — November 01, 1999 21 min read

For scores of teachers in Toledo, April is the month of reckoning. They are nearing the end of a controversial process known as peer review, a form of teacher evaluation born in this northern Ohio district in 1981. For six months, they have been under the scrutiny and tutelage of colleagues handpicked by the district. These so-called “consulting teachers” have observed their classes, questioned their habits, probed their weaknesses, and in some cases, befriended them.

Critics claim that peer review places unions in the untenable position of dismissing the very teachers whose rights they should defend.

Now, on this Monday morning, the day of judgment has arrived. In an undersized conference room lined with folding chairs, the consulting teachers step before a nine-member board of review and state whether their charges are fit to be teachers. In the typically colorless world of public school bureaucracy, this moment qualifies as high drama. Careers hang in the balance: If the consulting teacher recommends dismissing someone, termination almost always follows. Though the teachers and administrators who make up the board can choose to ignore a consulting teacher’s advice, they never have.

Today, most of the testimony features happy stories and good teachers. One of the teachers discussed takes such an interest in her kids and their learning that she’s compared to Karen Valentine, the oh-so-eager teacher from the long- ago TV series Room 222. Another commands such respect from his kids that his system of rules and consequences is rarely tested.

There are also tales of struggling educators born again. One of the teachers in the program once had the unfortunate habit of calling only on boys in his class, but now, with the help of his mentor, he has seen the error of his ways.

Not all the stories are upbeat, though. Some consulting teachers describe colleagues who have nasty, clearly ingrained streaks of eccentricity. Linda Rerucha, a coolly articulate high school English teacher, tells of a woman who prefers to teach while standing behind her charges. Once, when some students turned her way to ask a question, the teacher sent them to the office to be disciplined.

Some of these teachers seem beyond hope. Rerucha presents the case of one, a longtime middle school English teacher named “Mark Johnson” (not his real name). Though she’s observed his classroom on five occasions and spent hours working with him, he’s clearly damaged goods. Johnson, Rerucha tells the board, is obsessed with teaching grammar in isolation, drilling and testing his students on a steady regimen of participles, phrases, and clauses. He does not teach the mechanics of writing descriptive essays, claiming his students already know how. His kids, meanwhile, rebel against his oppressive style, telling him to “shut up.” When Rerucha raises these problems, Johnson tells her that they are “bad kids,” as surely she can see.

Over the course of the month, the board of review will hold many such hearings. Eventually, 29 consulting teachers will report on 275 teachers and recommend that 36 be fired. This 13 percent dismissal rate--a little higher than the district’s yearly average--is proof that peer review works, boosters say. Leaders of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, the union that created the program, contend that it drives incompetent teachers from the system en masse. Even better, they say, those who survive the process emerge as better teachers, thanks to the intensive guidance and counseling they receive.

Such praise reverberates nationally. Once considered heresy by teachers’ unions, peer review is now promoted by labor leaders, reformers, and the media alike. They claim it can purge schools of bad teachers, breathe new life into mediocre ones, and help transform teaching into a respected profession like medicine or law. For proof, they point to the “Toledo Plan,” the granddaddy of them all.

Yet the April hearing before the board of review reveals a crack in the hype. Of the teachers discussed that day, only one--the combative Mark Johnson--is a Toledo veteran. And that’s not an aberration. Toledo’s program was designed chiefly as an induction process to screen novices. In the 18 years since its inception, it has put only a handful of the district’s veteran teachers under the microscope. Last year, just six longtime educators were referred for peer review--that in a district with 2,600 teachers.

This kid-glove treatment of veterans is a subject of much controversy in Toledo, with administrators and union leaders each claiming that the other side is too faint-hearted to flag veteran candidates for the review process. But the flap underscores a nagging shortcoming of the concept of peer review: Although lauded as an evaluation system for all teachers, it has never worked well for veterans. And until that changes, peer review may never amount to much more than a promising idea.

Dal Lawrence, the father of peer review, sits in the offices of the Toledo Federation of Teachers talking about his creation. Before he became a high school history teacher in the early 1960s, Law rence was a salesman for a chemical company, and like many people accustomed to winning the confidence of strangers, he’s a philosopher-raconteur adept at spinning yarns rife with aphorisms and comic twists.

Peer review was never intended for veterans.

As Lawrence tells the story, he never envisioned peer review as something for veterans. Rather, the concept has its roots in Lawrence’s frustrations as a young teacher with the traditional evaluation system. During his first few years in the classroom, he wasn’t evaluated at all; his school’s vice principal said that if there was a problem with his teaching, “the kids would let him know.” Lawrence saw it as a symptom of the administration’s indifference to teacher quality.

“There were lots of people in those days who couldn’t control a class or teach a lesson, and yet they were never bothered,” he explains. “Then the administrator would arbitrarily pick on some new, young teacher and scare the living daylights out of him. The basic unfairness was terrible. And the evaluation system was haphazard, perfunctory-a visit from the principal which constituted more of a threat than an actual evaluation.”

Lawrence’s disgust with the district’s careless approach to evaluation drove him into union politics, and he was elected president of the TFT in 1967. In his new job, he came to believe that the top-down, industrial model of schooling spawned in teachers an unhealthy dependence upon a remote-and not particularly effective-administration. “You had the same attitudinal problems surfacing in the schools that you had in the automobile plants--lots of passive, alienated workers,” Lawrence says. “Teachers didn’t seem to realize that the colleague failing miserably down the hall was a reflection on you.”

Something had to be done, Lawrence decided, to ensure that teachers new to the classroom were up to snuff. “Somehow,” he explains, “I knew we had to get control of the induction process so that we could better ourselves and not rely on that person down in the office who doesn’t do what we do-that is teach.” As a model for his scheme, Lawrence turned to the medical profession’s system of internships. Bringing people into teaching as medicine does--with intense and expert supervision--made sense. So under Lawrence’s initial blueprint, highly skilled teachers with at least five years of experience would work full-time with teachers new to the district, even recommending their termination if they proved ill-suited to the profession.

Presenting his plan to the union membership, Lawrence didn’t dwell on the fact that teachers would play a role in firing other teachers. He even avoided calling his proposal peer review--"The teachers would have run away,” he explains--and instead described it as a plan to better the profession. He recalls: “We asked them, ‘How would you like to be part of a profession that’s respected?’ Hands went up, and the referendum on the proposal ended up passing by a three-to-one margin.”

District officials weren’t keen on the union plan. Principals in particular thought that giving teachers authority to do evaluations would strip them of power. Finally, in 1981, an attorney representing the district in contentious contract negotiations brokered the deal that made peer review happen. “A lot of people thought peer review was a crazy idea,” Lawrence recalls, “but the lawyer understood just what we were trying to get at. He knew that professionalism meant that teachers had to be responsible for determining the course of their own profession. And so he finally said, ‘We’ll let you have your intern program as long as there’s an intervention component for veteran teachers, too.’”

“I hesitated for a few minutes,” Lawrence recalls, “and then shook hands.”

It’s Tuesday, and consulting teachers Jackie O’Bryant and Karen Bade are hopscotching across Toledo in Bade’s red Volvo, visiting interns. O’Bryant occasionally checks a map next to her on the front seat. “One of the fringe benefits of this job is that I’ve really gotten to know the city,” she jokes.

O’Bryant and Bade are classroom veterans who have been released from their regular duties--O’Bryant as a high school French teacher and Bade as a special education teacher--to serve as full-time advisers, confidantes, and critics. For their trouble, they’ll make $5,165 a year on top of their salaries.

The two teachers’ clientele consists almost exclusively of interns. Each year, the district requires that its 200 or so new teachers--rookies, long-term subs, and veterans working in the district for the first time--go through peer review and face the review board. If they pass this test, teachers return for a second year of teaching.

Peer review works differently for veterans of the Toledo system. They are evaluated by a consulting teacher only upon the request of their school’s principal or union representative. Once that evaluation is complete, the review board has several options: It can conclude that no extra assistance is needed; it can assign a mentor; or it can require “intervention.” A veteran placed in intervention must work with a consulting teacher and show adequate improvement or face dire consequences.

Intervention generally lasts a year, though the actual time frame is up to the consulting teacher. “We’ve had some last two weeks, and some last two years,” says Dal Lawrence. In the end, the consulting teacher submits a report to the district that includes a recommendation to dismiss or retain the veteran. District officials then decide whether to fire the teacher. (The board of review hears updates on intervention cases, but it is not involved in the termination decision.)

Consulting teachers are known as terminators. Bade walked into one classroom, and a kid said, ‘I remember you. You fired our last teacher.’

Pivotal to peer review for new teachers and veterans is the work of the consulting teachers. Because teaching is a nuanced and idiosyncratic art, its effectiveness escapes easy analysis; indeed, the traditional evaluation system--principal rates teacher--is often faulted because it measures chiefly whether a teacher adheres to prescribed routines.

The good consulting teacher must be open-minded about teaching styles. Mentors who take a “do as I do” approach often meet resistance from their protégés. In fact, Toledo officials say a rigid consulting teacher can do as much harm as good. “You can’t have a bonehead, my-way-or-the-highway kind of person,” says former Toledo superintendent Crystal Ellis, an architect of the district’s peer review program. “A consulting teacher is in a very powerful position, and being inflexible is an abuse of that power.”

“There’s no one way to succeed with students,” adds Ron Black, a middle school math teacher and member of the review board. “Consulting teachers have to bring other teachers along without trying to clone themselves.”

Members of Toledo’s nine-member board of review--which consists of four union reps and five administrators-- are renowned for uncovering biases through tough cross-examinations of consulting teachers. Dal Lawrence no longer sits on the board--he stepped down as TFT president in 1997--but he was known as a ruthless interrogator. In the program’s early years, when a consulting teacher described an intern as a “natural born teacher,” Lawrence would go on the attack: “What is a natural born teacher? What traits does he or she have? Would you want your own children to be in the classroom of this natural born teacher?”

As O’Bryant and Bade drive around Toledo, they talk about the tricky business of assessing the work of colleagues. The consequences of their evaluations also weigh heavily on the consulting teachers, particularly when they’re working with someone who can’t attain a basic level of competence. Some pink-slipped teachers realize they’re better off doing something else, but that’s a best-case scenario. Some weep when confronted with the news, some argue, and some confront their mentors.

O’Bryant recalls working with one young man whom she eventually recommended for dismissal. “I felt guilty because I could see that he wasn’t improving,” she says. “I spent hours with him, modeling lessons, writing out recommendations, downloading teaching materials from the Internet, but he was still teaching from the seat of his pants--he had terrible planning skills. When I told him my recommendation, he cried. He said he had wanted all his life to be a teacher.”

Consulting teachers are known by some around the district as “terminators,” Bade says. “I walked into one classroom and this kid said to me, ‘Yeah, I remember you. You fired our last teacher.’”

But like many consulting teachers in Toledo, Bade and O’Bryant emphasize that their jobs are about mentoring, which often leads to the retention and betterment of promising young teachers, not their termination. With veteran teachers, they insist, the focus is on rehabilitation and “saving them.” Says O’Bryant, “I always feel that I’m an advocate. I’m going to do whatever it takes to make someone a successful teacher.”

There are no veterans on today’s visit list, but most of the interns Bade and O’Bryant call on appear to be on the road to success; several may even become extraordinary teachers. One of them, a young high school Spanish teacher named Mavio Marisel, smiles and shakes his head as he describes O’Bryant’s visits to his classroom. “It was the jinx,” he says. “Every time she was here, I had a problem. The second time she came by, I was dealing with a student who refused to listen and was paging through a gun magazine.”

Marisel, who had recently moved to Toledo from Texas, says that O’Bryant gave him many tips, none more important than her advice to speak more Spanish in class. “I was hesitant,” he says, “but it got the attention of my students.” O’Bryant also helped the young teacher navigate the maze of fingerprinting, drug testing, and district paperwork that she describes as “a mess that the first-year teacher shouldn’t have to endure.”

At the next school, Karen Bade drops in to see Anthony Young, a rookie special education teacher. He’s working with a class of grade-school children designated as “severe behavior handicapped” on a simple lesson to distinguish proper from common nouns. His manner is gentle yet persuasive, and the children treat him with an unfeigned, unsolicited respect. “Excuse me,” they say when they want to ask him a question. When a child says, “Ain’t that good,” Young gently corrects his grammar, and the boy repeats his teacher’s words.

Later, sitting in the hallway while an aide takes over his class, Young gushes over Bade’s mentorship. “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “I’ll ask her to come whenever I’m in doubt about something. In the first weeks, I had too much pride and thought I could handle everything myself. But as time went on, I found I was in over my head and needed help.”

Bade has helped Young on a number of classroom skills--including setting up reading groups, tailoring lessons to students’ specific needs, and defusing conflicts. But most of all, Young claims, Bade has instilled in him composure born of patience. “In the beginning, everything was a sprint,” he explains. “I’ve learned now that teaching is a marathon and that you have to take it slowly so that you can reflect upon what you’re doing.”

After Young, it’s back to the Volvo and across the city to visit another of Bade’s interns, a special education teacher who’s had a rough year. “She’s come far but still has a long way to go,” Bade says. “In the beginning, she was inconsistent--she’d warn a child of consequences for bad behavior and then fail to follow through. I think she’ll make it, though some improvement still needs to be made.”

The intern, whom we’ll call “Jane,” teaches in a basement classroom under a bank of fluorescent lights. She’s struggling to control a group of ill-behaved boys; they squirm and mumble in their seats as Jane gives directions. Meanwhile, a timer ticks away on her desk, set to ring each half hour to remind her to move on to the next activity. At one point, she asks a student to read. After stumbling through a couple sentences, the boy cries out to no one in particular, “It’s stupid. It’s stupid.” Eventually, he manages to get through the paragraph, as well as the rest of the class, without losing his temper.

This, Jane later says, is progress. A tired-looking but pleasant woman in her early 50s, she came to Toledo after six years in another Ohio district. Bade is tough but fair, she says. Still, the criticism hasn’t always been easy to take. At first, Bade’s visits made her so nervous that she had to excuse herself and use the bathroom. But Jane says she’s made great strides recently; she’s more consistently applying classroom rules, and she’s relying more on a classroom aide.

“I thought I was going to lose my job in the beginning of my internship--that was the hardest time,” Jane says. In her previous job, she taught in a remote classroom and knew no one outside of her small department. The principal was a distant, intimidating figure. Twice a year, a supervisor observed her class but left without commenting on her lessons.

“I had always been isolated, alone in my teaching, and so I had little idea of what was expected of me,” Jane says. “I wouldn’t have made it without Karen. She’s been with me every step of the way, and while it hasn’t always been easy, she’s brought me back from the brink.”

Thanks in part to the success of the Toledo Plan, peer review is widely seen as a key to strengthening the nation’s teacher corps. After years of fierce opposition, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association now cautiously endorse the idea. NEA president Bob Chase made it a key plank in his “new unionism” platform when he took office in 1997. Nationwide, at least a dozen districts have put Toledo-like programs in place, and in California, legislators recently mandated some form of peer review for each of the state’s more than 1,000 school districts.

Even Toledo principals have dropped their objections and now sing the program’s praises. Peer review isn’t perfect, they say--some bad interns can still bluff their way through--but the old system of evaluation was worse. “I’m lucky if I can get into a classroom twice a year to evaluate a teacher,” says David Yenrick, principal of Waite High School. “It takes a huge amount of effort.” Some principals also admit that they lack the expertise to evaluate classroom specialists--say, a chemistry teacher--so they focus too much on classroom management as a result.

Still, peer review has its detractors. Perhaps the most famous is Myron Lieberman, a former labor negotiator who is now a relentless critic of teachers’ unions. In his 1998 book Teachers Evaluating Teachers: Peer Review and the New Unionism, he argues that peer review amounts to a power grab by the unions. Teachers may appear to be shouldering new responsibility for classroom performance, he claims, but they’re actually seeking control of something that has long been the province of principals and administrators. Blaming “media gullibility” for peer review’s emergence as an educational cause celebre, Lieberman asserts that programs such as Toledo’s place unions in the untenable position of having to dismiss the very teachers whose rights they are charged with protecting.

Dal Lawrence rejects Lieberman’s criticism with a laugh--he’s heard it for so long he no longer finds it nettlesome. “The central flaw with Myron’s attacks on peer review is that he acts as if the traditional evaluation system works,” Lawrence says. “But it doesn’t work, and it never will.”

If Lieberman’s peer review attacks can be written off as the barbs of an anti-union gadfly, it’s harder to ignore the opposition of traditional teacher unionists. Several state NEA affiliates have flatly rejected Chase’s call for peer review; Wisconsin union leaders even accused him of engaging “in a policy of appeasement.” Last year, California’s state NEA affiliate surveyed its 141,000 members and found that only 25 percent supported peer review. Far greater numbers--55 percent--supported the idea of “peer assistance,” suggesting that teachers may be ready and able to help colleagues, but they want little to do with evaluating and possibly firing them.

Though Toledo teachers claim to be unabashed supporters of peer review, district statistics suggest that they, too, are not comfortable rating veteran colleagues, let alone handing out pink slips to those who don’t measure up. In the 18-year history of the Toledo Plan, consulting teachers have helped rid the district of more than 180 ineffective interns. But over the same period, a mere 55 veterans have been placed in intervention, and only two thirds of those were forced out. Indeed, the program was almost abandoned during 1998 contract negotiations when school board members complained that 41 percent of the district’s teachers had not been evaluated in the past five years. (Of those who had been evaluated, the bulk were new teachers.)

To Toledo School Board President Terry Glazer, the numbers show that peer review works for interns but not for veterans. “Only a few teachers in the entire district are slated for intervention, and I know as a parent of two children in the public schools that there are more than a handful of incompetent teachers in this district,” explains Glazer, who was one of the board members who fought to shutter the program in 1998. “When teachers are in school a long time, they tend to develop personal relationships, which makes it very difficult for their colleagues to evaluate them.”

During the contract talks, the school board eventually won a concession from the union that it hopes will lead to more interventions. Previously, both a school’s principal and its union representative had to agree to initiate the intervention process for a veteran teacher. Now, either the principal or the rep can start it.

But the change has yet to do much to boost the numbers of veterans who are evaluated. Last year, a scant six were referred for performance reviews; of those, only three were placed in intervention and assigned a consulting teacher.

Peer review hinges on the cooperation and commitment of front-line teachers, and they have never fully bought into the concept.

Teachers say these low numbers are proof that principals are simply too timid to take on incompetent staff. “Principals usually won’t go after trouble teachers,” says Nan Zawitza, who runs a voluntary assistance program for veteran teachers. “You’ve got to have good people skills to be a successful principal, and those kind of people will usually try to avoid confrontation. Principals want to be liked.”

Glazer says that while there’s some truth to this argument, he’s mystified at why principals have not asked for evaluations of more teachers. Done right, he argues, Toledo’s peer review program would rejuvenate lots of struggling and burned-out veterans. “But right now, I’m not sure we’re doing a good job.”

Whatever peer review’s failings, its boosters see a bright future for the idea. Lawrence is optimistic that more medium-sized school systems will soon join the dozen or so that have already adopted Toledo-like plans. And those, he believes, will be followed by larger districts like Chicago and Los Angeles.

But peer review’s history weighs heavy on its promise. The nearly 20-year run of the Toledo program is an eternity in the faddish world of education reform. If peer review is all that it’s cracked up to be, why, after all these years, haven’t more districts embraced it?

“It’s the old factory mentality,” Lawrence explains. “A lot of administrators don’t want to give up evaluative power, and a lot of union leaders are afraid of taking it on. If this is ever going to catch on in a big way--and I think it can--you’ve got to be concerned with what you can do to collectively improve the profession, not just with work rules and the like.”

Lawrence may be right. But there is another equally--if not more--significant reason the idea has never taken root in public education. Peer review hinges on the cooperation and commitment of front-line teachers, and they have never fully bought into the concept. Though teachers generally embrace the notion that they can and should help each other, they are not eager to evaluate their peers, much less take a hand in their dismissal. Ultimately, if teachers can’t look veteran colleagues in the eye and say, “You don’t measure up,” peer review’s promise will never be realized.