Calif. Bill Rekindles Debate Over Teacher Peer Review

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California's Poway Unified School District launched a program in 1987 that lets teachers review their colleagues' performance. Since then, teachers and administrators in the 33,000-student district say the gamble has paid off handsomely, giving new teachers much-welcomed help and removing some who belonged in another profession.

"Part of the reason I wanted to teach in this district is because I knew that the teacher support here was top-notch," said Kendall Gaspar, who started teaching 5th grade in the suburban San Diego system last fall. "They're here to help us and to make the first year of teaching the best that it can be."

Despite such accolades, at 12 years old, the initiative is California's sole example of a full-fledged peer-review program--a situation that could explain why Gov. Gray Davis believes other districts need more than a nudge to try out the new teacher-evaluation approach.

In one of his first official acts as governor, Mr. Davis convened a special legislative session last month to consider his wide-ranging plan for school accountability, including a $100 million peer-review initiative that would be the nation's first such statewide effort.

Legislation to do just that is on a fast track; the education committee in the legislature's lower house voted 12-2 for the plan last week.

Peer review has been held up as an example of the "new unionism" now being promoted by the National Education Association. ("Peer-Review Programs Catch Hold As Unions, Districts Work Together," June 3, 1998.)

Allies Take the Lead

But the idea has left many educators torn. The NEA's California affiliate, which first endorsed the approach last fall, has been underwhelmed by Gov. Davis' legislation and is lobbying to change it.

Meanwhile, outside the capital in Sacramento, the proposal is rekindling the debate among educators, revealing a wide spectrum of opinions toward such evaluations.

"Our union clearly wants peer review," said Joshua Pechthalt, an active member of the 34,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles, who himself opposes such programs. "But I think they're worried that [the Davis plan] will engender more opposition to peer review from the members."

Adding to the mixed feelings of California's teachers, the plan is being pushed by some of their closest political allies. The California Teachers Association, the NEA affiliate, was the largest single donor to the Davis campaign, helping him become the state's first Democratic governor in 16 years. The legislation was introduced by a former UTLA staff member, Speaker of the Assembly Antonio R. Villaraigosa, another Democrat.

The bill pledges to allow "exemplary teachers to assist veteran educators in need of development." Districts would appoint teachers as mentors, who would play the dual roles of coach and evaluator to any teacher referred to the program following the biennial review state law already requires.

Mentors would observe the participants, direct their professional development, and suggest improvements. Their assessments of the teachers they assist would then go to administrators, to be used in the teachers' official job evaluations. The idea, supporters say, is for struggling teachers to get help from those who know their needs best--before administrators rate their performance.

But UTLA President Day Higuchi says that system wouldn't merit the peer-review label.

Most established programs around the country, including the one in California's Poway district, focus primarily on evaluating new teachers, not classroom veterans, he points out.

In addition, the power to fire new teachers in Poway rests not with administrators, but with a panel made up chiefly of other teachers and union representatives. Of some 700 new teachers that have gone through that district's program, 31 have been let go.

Lastly, Mr. Higuchi objects to how the bill would compel districts to implement programs: Those that didn't would forfeit part of their state aid.

"What this says is that you get a bizarre version with a gun to your head," he argued.

Flexibility Sought

Rather than support or oppose the current bill outright, the CTA's governing body last month adopted a wait-and-see posture, allowing it to push for changes without lobbying to kill the legislation altogether. The union wants more guarantees that teachers would get assistance before their jobs were jeopardized. Most important, union leaders say, peer review should be optional.

"We're not opposed to the concept," said Tommye W. Hutto, a CTA spokeswoman. "But it has to be something that local teachers want to do."

Officials at UTLA, a merged local of the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, also want more flexibility so that districts that chose to try peer review could pick from a range of options.

"Some people would say, 'Peer assistance, yes, but peer review no,' " UTLA member Linda Guthrie said. "That's why it has to be a continuum."

Ms. Guthrie sits on a UTLA committee that's designing a pilot peer-review program for the 697,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District. But she worries that a state mandate could spark more distrust toward the approach among teachers."This is seen as a punitive measure coming down from the state," she said.

Teachers' groups "embrace the notion or the concept of peer review, but would prefer to go more slowly," said Sue Burr, California's undersecretary for education. "From our perspective, we want to approach it in a much more bold manner. What's at the core of this is trying to improve our teaching force, and we really can't wait on that."

The bill calls for implementing the new programs by summer 2000, and some local unions contend that's too fast.

"Our folks would not be open to that at this point," said Marc Knapp, the president of the San Diego Education Association. "These are people who are supposed to be working collegially, and you're talking about them going in and doing a job that administrators already are being paid fairly substantially for."

Competing Views

For Mr. Pechthalt, the reasons to oppose peer review are obvious to him as he looks around his classroom at Manual Arts High School.

The building sits in a South Central Los Angeles neighborhood that nearly burned to the ground during the riots here in 1992. The few instructional materials he's scraped together include a set of textbooks and an on-loan map. He paid for the television set and VCR.

Addressing such austerity, he says, ought to be the unions' main concern, not designing new performance reviews. Peer review "feeds into the notion that the teachers are the problem," he said. "The fact is that teachers are working harder than ever."

But 125 miles south of his district, the Poway Federation of Teachers holds a different view. In an era when public education is under so much pressure to show improvement, teachers need to play an influential role in school accountability, said Don Raczka, the president of the AFT local whose parent organization approved of peer review long before the NEA embraced it.

"I see vouchers and privatization as huge threats," he said. "And if we're not doing something to hold ourselves to a higher standard, we're going to get stopped."

Vol. 18, Issue 23, Pages 22-31

Published in Print: February 17, 1999, as Calif. Bill Rekindles Debate Over Teacher Peer Review
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