By Barbara Miner
Diana Porter, who has been teaching in the Cincinnati public schools for 20 years, has been evaluated by the administration three times: after her first and third years, and once when she switched schools. Like many teachers, she felt that the traditional evaluation process was often a joke. Some principals gave outstanding evaluations to teachers who dozed in class because the teacher was a friend. Some principals based their evaluation on whether the students had clean desks. Some principals made evaluations after only 20 minutes of observing the class.
In Porter’s case, she once got an excellent evaluation because she was a German teacher and the principal, who didn’t speak German, was impressed by the fact that no English was spoken in class. But he didn’t have a clue what was really going on, Porter said.
“Abuses went on like that over the years,” Porter told Rethinking Schools. “It was totally a joke.”
Porter was enthusiastic, therefore, when the teachers’ union initiated the Peer Assistance and Appraisal Program in 1985-86. Under the program, experienced teachers, known as consulting teachers, leave the classroom for two years and “mentor” new teachers and evaluate whether their contracts should be renewed. Second, and more controversial, consulting teachers also work with veteran teachers with serious teaching problems, a process known as “intervention.” If the troubled teacher has not sufficiently improved her/his skills after two years, the consulting teacher has the authority to recommend the teacher be fired.
A number of teachers and administrators were initially leery of the program, according to Tom Mooney, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. But views, by and large, have changed. The administration, for example, has seen that peer evaluators not only provide needed support for teachers, but are stricter in evaluating their colleagues.
“The evidence is clear after six years that peer evaluation is more rigorous,” Mooney said. “That didn’t surprise us, but it surprised some administrators who thought we might be using the program to cover up or protect teachers.”
In the program’s first year, consulting teachers rated 10.5% of interns less than satisfactory, compared to 4% of new teachers evaluated by administrators, according to the union. Five percent of beginning teachers under peer review were dismissed, compared to 1.6% of those evaluated by principals. Results have been comparable in following years.
Peer appraisal has also been more rigorous with veteran teachers. From 1986-90, there were 43 teachers recommended for intervention. Of those, 16 were either fired or left teaching at some point during the process. Fifteen had their teaching brought up to acceptable standards, and the other cases were either continued into 1991 or were put on hold.
The peer program does not eliminate evaluations by principals and administrators. Approximately 70% of new teachers, however, are evaluated and “mentored” under the peer program. The district hires roughly 300 new teachers a year, in a system with 3,500 certified teachers.
There are 14 consulting teachers, each working with a maximum of 14 teachers. Veteran teachers on “intervention” count as 1.5 because of the extra time needed. While consulting teachers appraise most new and troubled teachers, administrators still evaluate teachers during their third year, those seeking tenure, and those who change subject areas.
Mooney said the union initiated the peer program in part to answer the criticism that the union wasn’t concerned with incompetent teachers or guaranteeing professional standards. After negotiations, the program became part of the contract between the teachers and administration.
The consulting teachers are selected jointly by the union and the Cincinnati Public Schools administration. They make their reports and recommendations to a Peer Review Panel, which consists of five teachers appointed by the union and five administrators appointed by the superintendent. The panel makes the ultimate recommendation to the superintendent whether new teachers should be renewed and whether a troubled teacher should be dismissed.
The consulting teachers leave the classroom for two years, then return after that time. George Varland, director of employee relations for the Cincinnati Public Schools and co-head of the Peer Review Panel, said a two-year maximum was imposed because “some people feel that if you’re out of the classroom too long, you’re going to forget what it was like.”
The specialties of the consulting teachers can change from year to year. This school year, for example, there are consulting teachers in almost all elementary schools, in special education, and in secondary math, science, social studies, and English. There are none specializing in voc-ed, home-economics, or counselling, partly for financial reasons and partly because few teachers have been hired in those areas in recent years.
The Importance of Assistance
Sheila Saylor, a consulting teacher in English, said one of the strengths of the program is that it not only evaluates teachers, but provides assistance. This is especially important because new teachers have traditionally have been forced to take a sink or swim approach.
Saylor is working with 13 teachers: eight beginning teachers, three who have just transferred into the Cincinnati system, and two veteran teachers who are on intervention. The focus is on training and assistance.
“I go into their classroom and I observe them, and I talk with them about the observation,” she said. “I do demonstration teaching, I help them plan, we go through the curriculum, I send them to workshops.”
With new teachers, the goal is to provide sufficient support and evaluation. In the long run, this will avoid the problem of accusations of incompetence suddenly surfacing against long-time veterans who were never seriously evaluated, Saylor said.
A veteran teacher can be recommended for intervention by either a building administrator or the union’s building representative. Fellow teachers remain reluctant to recommend a colleague for intervention, and it is believed that all intervention requests have come from the administration, according to Denise Hewitt of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers.
A consulting teacher makes an initial investigation and advises the Peer Review Panel if the teacher needs intervention. If it is decided that intervention is required, a consulting teacher works with the veteran for up to two years.
“Often, the teacher has just become negligent,” Saylor said. “The potential is there for success in the classroom; they’ve just somewhere forgotten that.”
When teachers on intervention don’t improve, they can be recommended for dismissal. Some teachers in intervention choose to leave teaching before the process is completed.
Many teachers were skeptical of the program at first, Saylor said. Some teachers felt threatened, some wondered whether consulting teachers were supervisors in disguise, and others questioned what right consulting teachers had to tell other teachers what to do. But teachers are increasingly supportive, in particular because they would rather be evaluated by someone who takes the time, knows the subject matter being taught, and understands the reality of classroom teaching.
Some of the strongest resistance initially came from administrators and principals, who felt their authority was being restricted.
“When the proposal was first put in, I was almost attacked by our administrators — the principals and supervisors — because I was taking away their power,” recalled Varland, director of employee relations for the Cincinnati schools. “It was really quite nasty for awhile. Now, most administrators say this is a great program. It takes a lot of duties away from them and they are able to do things they weren’t able to do before.”
Criticism From Other Unions
Nationally, the strongest criticism has tended to come from other unions.
Peer evaluation programs have been adopted in only a handful of school districts across the country. Cincinnati’s is one of the most controversial because consulting teachers can recommend dismissal of veteran teachers. In Toledo, for example, there is a similar program but consulting teachers (called lead teachers) do not make a recommendation whether teachers on intervention should be dismissed. That decision is left up to a review panel of six teacher representatives and six administrative representatives.
“This protects the relationships between the lead teacher and the teacher in intervention,” said Tom Gillett, first vice president of the Rochester Teachers Association.
“We’re trying to help people and improve instruction, rather than be one more big brother or one more big sister that says, ‘Yup, you’re no good,'” Gillett later noted.
The main critique of the Cincinnati program is that it blurs the distinction between management and teacher responsibilities, and can divide teachers against each other. By involving teachers in evaluations that could lead to dismissal, particularly of veteran teachers, the program forces teachers to undertake a management responsibility, according to this critique.
In fact, some people felt so strongly about the blurring of this distinction that legislation was introduced several years ago that would have prohibited the Cincinnati program, according to Hewitt of the CFT. The legislation, which was supported by the Ohio Education Association, didn’t pass.
Hewitt admitted that the union is walking a thin line, and not only on the issue of union versus management responsibilities. In addition, the union represents both the teacher on intervention and the consulting teacher, and part of the union’s job is to ensure that any teacher recommended for dismissal is guaranteed the right of due process as outlined in the contract. There are also issues of trust and tensions that crop up when a colleague evaluates a veteran teacher.
The union decided it was better to take the risk and grapple with the issue of teaching standards and accountability, however, than continue a situation where no one really addressed the problem, Hewitt said.
Shari Francis, a senior policy analyst with the National Education Association in Washington, D.C., did not want to comment specifically on the Cincinnati program. But she said the NEA generally disagrees with programs that do not distinguish between evaluations designed to improve teaching, in which peer assistance is invaluable, and evaluations which are part of a hiring or firing process and which are management’s responsibility. Merging the two evaluations “can damage the integrity and openness of a true peer assistance program,” Francis said. “And it calls into question appropriate roles and responsibilities within the bargaining unit.”
Culture of Teaching
Porter, a former consulting teacher in Cincinnati who is now back in the classroom, said she understood that some union supporters in other districts disagreed with the Cincinnati program. She countered that school reform will never succeed unless the culture of teaching and learning changes. Teachers must be encouraged to work together, to be open to new ideas, to continue their learning, and, when necessary, to criticize each other in a constructive, professional way. In that regard, according to Porter, peer evaluation is only one part of the larger issue of ensuring professional teaching standards and improving the learning and teaching environment.
“It’s not just peer evaluation,” Porter said. “It’s building a culture of collaboration and criticism. We have to support each other and we have to be free to criticize each other, whether it’s on racism or classroom management. That’s what this is all about… It has to be part of a whole reform package, to help teachers become more empowered and to change the culture in the schools.”
Barbara Miner firstname.lastname@example.org was managing editor of Rethinking Schools.