One afternoon last May, a veteran teacher in California's William S. Hart Union High School District looked back over what had been a rough year. The previous spring, she'd been headed for a bad evaluation, so she volunteered for the district's Peer Assistance and Review program. She was told she would receive up to two years of coaching — and if she didn't improve, she would be fired.
"When you've been teaching for 20 years, there's a bit of a shame factor," the teacher said, asking to remain anonymous. "I take it personally. You get the feeling they're after you."
But it was true, she said. She'd been given some new classes and couldn't control them — the fights, the talking back, the kids who wouldn't turn off their iPods. She was always sending students to the principal's office. Under the peer review program, she was assigned an experienced "consulting teacher" who reviewed her weekly lesson plans and dropped in on her classroom, unannounced, at least once a week.
"At first, the veteran teachers are so mortified, it's like The Scarlet Letter," says Jennifer Klipfel, one of three consulting teachers at Hart. "There is a lot of resistance. But once they realize that we're there to try to help them keep their jobs, they have a change of heart. They're more receptive."
The anonymous 20-year veteran learned how to set down classroom rules at the beginning of the school year and consistently enforce them. She started using an overhead projector so that she did not have to turn her back to her students. She stopped trying to "wing it" through lessons. And after one year of coaching, she and two other tenured teachers in the program received passing grades. Four others were referred for a second year.
"It was more like having a psychiatrist helping me get through it," the veteran says of her reviewer. "I really wanted help. It made me prepare. Now, my students know what to expect and what they can get away with."
President Barack Obama has endorsed peer review as a way to help struggling teachers, and so has the American Federation of Teachers, but nationally, such programs are few and far between since they were developed in Toledo, Ohio, nearly 30 years ago. In California, the Legislature funded them beginning in 1999 to help both new hires and tenured veterans. But California allows its 1,052 districts to shift Peer Assistance and Review money to other programs if they choose: They don't have to tell the state how they spend it.
"It would be really difficult to tell who is actively funding PAR programs and who is using PAR money in other ways," says Linda Nichols, education program consultant for the California Department of Education.
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Peer review is not cheap. A 2011 report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education looking at seven districts in five states reported the programs cost $4,800 per novice teacher and $8,300 per veteran, on average. But it's money that participating districts view as a good investment: It reduces turnover, rescues them from giving tenure to bad hires and saves them the cost of firing tenured teachers (more than $100,000 in legal fees alone, in some cases). And as one peer evaluator was quoted, "... [I]t's priceless because it impacted 20 little kids for the rest of their life to have a quality teacher."
At Hart, Peer Assistance and Review costs $400,000 annually, most of it for three consulting teachers and a lead teacher to run the program. All of Hart's new teachers are automatically placed in it. Out of 28 teachers under review during the 2010-2011 school year, 20 were novices and eight were veterans.
"I consider it one of the most valuable programs that we put our money into," says Vicki Engbrecht, assistant superintendent of educational services at Hart. "The success of our academic programs relies solely on the shoulders of hiring, supporting and maintaining the most outstanding teachers."
The consulting teachers make a practice of giving out six compliments for every criticism. They avoid using words like "lazy," instead writing down such specific observations as, "Five students were tardy and you didn't respond," or "You gave your students eight minutes to pack their bags at the end of the period" or "You didn't post an agenda." The consulting teachers keep logs, write reports, model lessons, provide materials and suggest strategies for improvement.
The peer review program sets the bar for how new teachers will perform for the rest of their careers, Engbrecht says, and most of the veterans who go through it do improve and are retained. Out of 25 tenured teachers who have been referred for peer review at Hart in the past 11 years, only eight have resigned or been fired. For dismissals, Engbrecht says, the program is more humane and cost-effective than going through arbitration and appeals.
The peer reviewers at Hart check student grades in similar classes to make sure that the teachers in the program are on track. Those who improve are better able to challenge and engage their students, says Linda Margulies, the lead consulting teacher at Hart.
For a look at what public schools are doing to repair themselves on the cheap, check out the education stories found in the September-October 2011 issue of Miller-McCune, and when they'll be available on Miller-McCune.com:
Teacher Collaboration Gives Schools Better Results, August 22
What Would Diane Ravitch Say?, August 22
Chicago Charter Schools Aim to Lift Urban Education, August 23
Last Chance for Bad Teachers,
Showing Where Community Colleges Pass, Fail, August 25
Bridging the Budget Gap with Stolen Lunch Money, August 25
Teaching Religious Literacy in California's Bible Belt, August 26
Teaching Kids to Love Nature (and Buy Less Stuff), August 26
"We can't go inside students' brains, but we make certain that kids are paying attention to well-planned lessons," she says.
The terms of peer review at Hart and other participating districts must be negotiated between the district administration and the teachers' union.
"We brought this to the district and pushed for it," says Leslie Littman, a high school history teacher who is president of Hart District Teachers Association. Littman is a member of the review panel of three Hart administrators and four teachers who recommend whether to retain or dismiss teachers.
"The principals don't see it as usurping their power, and it takes a heck of a lot of work off their plate," Littman says. "And the teachers are better at providing the support than people who have been in their offices for some time."
A weakness of the Hart program, according to Littman and Margulies, is that very few tenured teachers wind up in it — roughly two per year, out of a teaching staff of 1,000. (That's par for the course: In the Los Angeles Unified School District of 29,000 teachers, about 100 veterans go through peer review yearly.)
Hart is located in the affluent L.A. suburb of Santa Clarita, and it enjoys a good reputation. The district scores 824 points out of a possible 1,000 on California's Academic Performance Index, making it one of the highest-performing high school districts in the state. Still, Margulies and Littman say, principals should be doling out more unsatisfactory evaluations for teachers who are underperforming; other teachers know who they are.
"As the program is shown to be helpful," Engbrecht says, "I think principals are motivated to refer teachers by giving them an unsatisfactory evaluation."
In any case, veteran teachers who wind up in peer review tend to be the worst in the district, Margulies says. They may be sarcastic. They may grade arbitrarily ("If you say another word, you get 5 percent off your grade!"). Or they're deadly boring and they make their students fill out workbooks day after day. Margulies says bad teachers often blame their students, saying, "They don't want to learn," or "Their parents don't value school" or "I don't know what planet these kids are on."
Hart's consulting teachers each carry a caseload of 15 teachers: Veterans count as two because their bad habits are harder to break.
"It isn't easy for an adult to change roads," Margulies says. "We have people who have seen how much work it is to teach and grade papers and prepare lesson plans who have said, 'You've got to be kidding.'"
Some veterans resign as soon as they are referred to the program.
"What do you do when the kids aren't learning?" Klipfel says. "In the past, they failed. But in this era of such a spotlight on test scores, we have to demand they don't fail."