How much longer are we going to continue down the path of absurdity seeking the promised land of teacher evaluations? Spending millions of dollars on complicated and convoluted systems that only demoralize teachers will eventually result in backlash from taxpayers and voters. Evaluating teachers on student test scores will inevitably prove once again that low income students do not test as well as affluent students and that effective teachers who want good evaluations will move to schools with higher income students. Coupling test scores of students to the evaluations of teachers who never taught those children will never hold up in court. The irony in all this is that there is an effective system for teacher evaluations, one that has been around since the 1980’s.
Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) programs have been the exemplar for strong teacher evaluation systems. Teachers trained to evaluate their peers are able to distinguish the inexperienced from the ineffective---a significant difference from other evaluation systems---and can help teachers improve their practice. For the politicians and so-called reformers who complain that our systems are broken because we do not fire enough teachers, these programs offer the answer. PAR programs have exited more ineffective teachers than any other evaluation system and have minimized legal bills while doing so. For the unions who demand due process and fairness, PAR has provided evidence difficult to refute in grievance procedures or courts. For all teachers, these evaluations offer support for improvement, mentoring, and sometimes the revelation that teaching is not their calling. For principals, PAR programs offer information leading them to a more focused and effective use of their time in personnel development.
The first Peer Assistance and Review program was born and nurtured in Toledo, Ohio. Other districts that have created PAR programs have adopted the basic components from Toledo and then customized the program to fit their own culture, finances, and laws. The union representing teachers and the district administration jointly manage PAR. Anecdotal reports from observers of the decision-making body note that they cannot tell union representatives from administrators. Both groups have high stakes in the integrity and success of the program. A key component of an effective PAR is a well-trained cohort of consulting teachers who mentor and evaluate their peers. Principals continue to do basic evaluations of all teachers, but they share with consulting teachers evaluations of new teachers. Principals also refer at-risk teachers to the PAR program for intensive support and further evaluations.
Some critics have said principals fear that they might lose power and control over the school faculty, but the experience of those in the program have shown otherwise. Human development is a full-time job. Principals can have only so many full-time jobs. The demands of evaluating teachers, especially in a large school, can be overwhelming. The ability to have assistance with new teachers and ineffective teachers is a godsend. Laws that require principals to evaluate all teachers every year create inefficiency and are unrealistic. Evaluating teachers every two or three years is enough. Just remember, Finland as a nation has no formal teacher evaluation systems because they ensure teacher quality before the hiring process. A PAR program coupled with more attention to quality control in preparation for and entry into the teaching profession would better serve our interests in the United States.
Given all we know about strengths of the PAR evaluation system, why is it not in place in every district? The usual answer is money, but I would contend that it is a lack of understanding. If you isolate PAR from legal budgets, human capital losses, and efficiency, it may seem expensive, but if you look at the program systemically, you will find that it adds tremendous value in building an effective education system.
Peer Assistance and Review programs are the best choice for teacher evaluation and, if implemented, could result in an accomplished teacher in every US classroom.
The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed 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.