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A Fairer Way to Evaluate Teachers

Reformers have long maintained that the system of evaluating teachers is a travesty. They cite evidence showing that tenure is virtually automatic after teachers complete a minimal number of years and that subsequent ratings are unreliable. I agree with this overall conclusion. But rather than bemoan the situation, I think it's time to present solutions.

In this regard, I urge readers to consider what the Montgomery County Public Schools are doing ("Helping Teachers Help Themselves," column, The New York Times, June 6). Under a program called Peer Assistance and Review, a panel consisting of eight teachers and eight principals are put in charge of the process. They first mentor struggling teachers and then vote to fire those who do not improve after a stipulated period.

Contrary to the concern that this split division of power will lead to stalemate, over the past 11 years, PAR has voted to fire 200 teachers. (300 more have quit to avoid going through the process.) By contrast, in the decade before PAR was in place, only five teachers were fired.

This track record should put to rest the claim that involving teachers in evaluating other teachers will vitiate the rigor of the practice. Even before PAR came into existence, I saw how demanding teachers can be of each other. Let's not forget that when teachers at one level are ineffective, they create additional work for their colleagues at another level. As a result, it is in the interest of all teachers to be vigilant in their ratings.

However, the one element of PAR that needs clarification is the importance of including only teachers who are certified in the same subject of teachers being evaluated. For example, I don't believe that English teachers should be on a panel evaluating science teachers. While there are certainly instructional principles that cut across all fields, subject matter being taught should not be given short shrift in the evaluation. Yet too often it is an afterthought. That's a serious mistake because it breeds resentment among teachers and shortchanges students.

If the numbers of peer review panels increase, as I hope they will, their proliferation will also help mute cries that teachers unions exist only to protect teachers. The way they operate should provide evidence that the rights of teachers and the rights of students are not mutually exclusive. That's a win-win situation.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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