Grading Thy Neighbor

Increasingly, your colleague can help decide if you keep your job.

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As everyone from parents to the president puts educators under the magnifying glass, a growing number of school districts are asking their own teachers to hold the lens. Called peer review, the system gives experienced teachers responsibility for evaluating certain colleagues—typically those who are new or struggling—with the aim of retaining good teachers and ousting those who show little potential.

The practice has spread with increasing speed since it was pioneered in Toledo, Ohio, 25 years ago. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but Dal Lawrence, the former president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers who launched the system, estimates there are now 75 to 80 programs, with about half of those springing up in the past eight years.

Increasingly, your colleague can help decide if you keep your job.
—David Kidd

This year, peer review is expanding to its largest school system yet—Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest district. Administrators there are teaming up with the Chicago Teachers Union on a pilot program in eight schools, targeting 125 teachers with four or fewer years in the district. Next year, the program will grow to include tenured teachers chosen for intervention.

Marc Wigler, who administers the program for the Chicago Teachers Union, says retention is the primary goal. Especially in urban districts, it can be sink or swim for new teachers, he says. In the peer review program, they’ll each spend 40 hours over the course of the school year with one of eight mentors. “We’re looking to better the profession,” Wigler says. “No principal could give a teacher 40 hours of mentoring.”

At the end of the year, mentors will report to an evaluation board, which decides whether to renew teachers’ contracts. This structured process is an improvement, Wigler contends, over giving principals free rein to dismiss non-tenured teachers.

But Shelly Harris, a fourth-year teacher at Richards Career Academy in Chicago who will be reviewed, fears the union “sold out the teachers.” Says Harris: “The whole thing is condescending and arbitrarily targets a group of teachers merely based on their employment designation, period—not experience, nor competence and education.”

In Toledo, the program has eliminated approximately 8 percent of non-tenured teachers each year, plus a total of 90 tenured teachers. “We are weeding out the ones that maybe don’t belong in the classroom at all,” says Janet Bird, who went through peer review as a new teacher in Toledo in 1992 and has since become a mentor.

Some question how forthright teachers can be with mentors who could eventually hand out a job-ending performance review. But Bird maintains that she wouldn’t have made it if not for her own mentor, who showed her how to address the needs of a student who threw desks in class and was several grade levels behind her other 6th graders. “We really do work hard to build trusting relationships,” she says. “Everybody has that fear of being evaluated. … You just have to look past that.”

And while many of the mentoring relationships do continue for years beyond the review period, Lawrence reports that the way teachers feel about the program usually depends on how they fare: “We get glowing reports back from about 92 percent [of non-tenured teachers], and the 8 percent who don’t make it don’t like the program.”

Vol. 18, Issue 03, Page 8

Published in Print: December 1, 2006, as Grading Thy Neighbor
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