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Addressing the Other Side of Teacher Evaluation

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When school starts this fall in Elgin, Ill., teachers will be evaluated on their work in the classroom, as they have been for years. But for the first time, those who are struggling will be paired with consulting teachers who will coach them and help them develop a plan to improve.

In the ongoing push to improve our schools, all eyes have turned to better ways of ensuring that teachers are doing their jobs well. There's a growing recognition that current evaluation systems aren't sufficiently focused on the elements of teaching practice that improve student outcomes, and the federal government is providing incentives for states and districts to create more rigorous evaluation systems that address these shortcomings.

It's a long-overdue move. We need to do a better job of evaluating and supporting all teachers so they can improve instruction for every student. Unfortunately, while more sophisticated ways of measuring teachers are now being developed, less attention has been paid to the other side of evaluation -- providing the robust coaching and professional learning that can improve instruction, particularly for novice teachers still learning to navigate a demanding profession. And as has long been the case in professions such as engineering, medicine, aviation, and the law, research is beginning to show us that the best people to provide professional evaluations and support for teachers are often other teachers.

In Elgin and more than a dozen other school districts across the country, teachers are doing just that through an approach called Peer Assistance and Review (PAR). Instead of just setting a bar for teachers to reach, PAR creates teacher-led coaching and support systems to ensure that they can meet expectations and continue to grow throughout their careers.

Details vary, but in PAR programs evidence of effective classroom teaching, not superficial checklists or subjective write ups, become the basis of teacher evaluations. Teachers who are not performing up to expectations work with consulting teachers to develop a plan to improve and are given coaching and other supports to help them follow through. For example, in Columbus, Ohio, novice teachers in participating schools receive between 15 and 20 formal observations and ongoing support from their consulting teachers -- and are much less likely to leave the district or the profession as a result.

Making teachers accountable to each other and providing opportunities for educators to work together to improve instruction removes the traditional isolation of the teacher in the classroom that has too often hindered educational progress. In fact, the consulting teachers often learn as much from observing and coaching their peers as the educators they work with. The majority of teachers who enter PAR programs due to performance issues improve and move out of the system, but those that don't are removed from schools -- and because teachers and their unions are involved in the system and each individual decision, those dismissals are seen as fair. In fact, research has shown that teachers in PAR programs are tougher in evaluating their peers than the principals and other administrators that traditionally lead evaluations. Other studies have found links between these rigorous evaluation systems and improved student outcomes.

PAR has been in existence for decades, but the practice has been slow to spread. It can be a tough sell for cash-strapped districts, which have to hire new teachers to replace the ones who conduct evaluations and provide support. And teachers are often initially uncomfortable with the idea of being evaluated by their peers, though in district after district, they quickly warm to the idea of collaborating with peers. District and union leaders also have to have a good enough working relationship to sit down and jointly create the system, including making tough decisions about how and when under performing teachers should be removed. And even then, it's not a quick fix -- developing and implementing an effective PAR program can take several years.

But with growing interest in new teacher evaluation systems, PAR's time may have finally come. In Elgin, the local union worked with its district, with the support of the NEA Foundation, to develop its peer assistance system as a way to comply with the state's new teacher evaluation laws. The partnership demonstrates that the tougher evaluations that states are now requiring and the professional support teachers have always needed don't have to be mutually exclusive.

Nor should they be. The PAR approach is a win-win: while addressing concerns about the quality of teaching through more rigorous evaluations, the counseling by experienced teachers helps ensure that all educators, as a matter of course, learn how to deepen learning and help children meet high standards -- which is exactly what the end goal of any evaluation system for teachers should be.

Harriet Sanford is the president & CEO of The NEA Foundation.