The idea of peer review for teachers has been around for a generation. It's controversial, but mostly in the places that don't use it. Places such as Montgomery Country, Maryland, and 80 other districts that have strong programs consider them successful. The Los Angeles Unified School District and its unions are considering bringing a robust version of peer review to Los Angeles. They should -- it's a good idea.
I admit bias about peer review. I've seen it work in elementary and secondary schools. As a university professor I have been subjected to it. But the immediate reason to favor it in L. A. is that peer review offers solutions to two problems within Los Angeles Unified. It helps create and retain good teachers. And it gets those who can't or won't teach out of the classroom and off the payroll.
The existing peer review programs differ somewhat, but in general, here's how they work:
• A governing board of teachers and administrators oversees the whole program. It's not the property of district, the teacher's union, or the administrator's union. The composition and powers of the governing board are often described in the labor contracts or in memorandum of agreement between the unions and district.
• A team of trained teachers coaches and assists the teachers being reviewed and presents evaluative findings to the governing board.
• These "supervising teachers," as they are called in some districts, are generally released from classroom duties, either full- or part-time.
• Generally, all novice teachers are assigned to peer review during their probationary period. A supervising teacher is assigned to each of them.
• Administrators, teachers, or the union can nominate an experienced but underperforming teacher for intervention by the peer review process. Before deciding to intervene, the governing board must decide whether there is a good cause.
• After a period of coaching and intervention, the supervising teachers and/or the principal present their findings to the governing board regarding retention of the teacher. These are based on standards the board has adopted for all teachers. The peer review governing board makes a recommendation to the superintendent, and the superintendent to the school board.
How tough-minded are teachers going to be? From what we know, tougher than the current system. Fewer than 2 percent of novice teachers in Los Angeles are actually denied tenure, although a larger percentage are "counseled out," and encouraged to resign. (There are no good estimates for that number.) In Toledo, Ohio, (34,000 students) which has had a peer review process since the early 1980s, the percentage ranges from 3 percent to 13 percent, depending on the year. The program also recommended dismissal of a dozen teachers over the last five years. While these numbers are not huge, and are subject to criticism they represent a significant advancement over the state of practice in Los Angeles.
But the key to peer review is not to see how many teacher scalps can be nailed to the wall; it's to improve the quality of teaching. "Good teachers aren't born--they evolve," said United Teachers Los Angeles leaders in a recent commentary piece. Peer review pushes evolution along. By any reasonable measure, peer review provides a more thorough support system than principals are able to provide: more time in coaching, more specific criticism, attention to a known body of teaching standards.
Peer review also forces expert teachers to become explicit about their craft and the art of teaching. A great deal of practical teaching knowledge remains tacit, locked up in the heads of experienced master teachers. These are not the textbook, Teaching 101, skills but nuanced knowledge about when to recognize that a student is "getting it," or how to reach disconnected or difficult child. The coaching processes inherent in peer review require these expert teachers to communicate this tacit knowledge to others.
At the school level, teacher voice about what constitutes quality teaching or effective approach instruction will be key to the success of the newly approved Pilot Schools, where important decisions about budget and curriculum will be made within the school.
At an institutional level, peer review is a way that teacher knowledge gets heard and honored. The ability to develop voice around what constitutes quality teaching, and the courage to act on that voice, gives teachers credibility in other venues, too.
Nationwide there is a renewed interest in teacher peer review. Jennifer Goldstein, who taught in Compton before becoming a professor at City University of New York, has produced the first book length description of how peer review works based on a study of a California district. Professor Susan Moore Johnson and her students at Harvard University have analyzed many peer review programs, and they have posted answers to many operating questions. Links to these and other peer review sites can be found on my web site.
Peer review fits into an overall revamping of how human talent is used in schools: evaluation, tenure, career pathways, and support mechanisms. LAUSD is tussling with these issues now, with the school board scheduled to discuss the contested report of its Teacher Effectiveness Task force on April 27. It's an idea whose time has come.