Evaluating teachers is an indispensable step in improving educational quality. How it is done, however, is the core of the debate. I'd like to take a closer look at Peer Assistance and Review in the belief that it is the fairest way.
As things stand in most school districts, teachers who fail to measure up to established standards after a stipulated time period will be fired. Reformers favor this punitive approach because they argue that students deserve only the best teachers. I agree that some teachers do not belong in the classroom. But rather than immediately writing off marginal teachers as hopeless, I think many can improve if they are given proper support. That's why I favor Peer Assistance and Review. By providing both new and veteran teachers with coaches, the strategy has great potential.
A small number of traditional public school districts across the country offers Peer Assistance and Review. Whether the coaches are called consulting teachers or are given another title, they are chosen for their proven expertise. Typically, they submit a report about each teacher under their wing to a panel whose composition varies. The report is the first document in determining whether a teacher is dismissed or retained. In some districts, the report is the sole basis; in others it is considered along with the principal's evaluation ("The Potential of Peer Review," Educational Leadership, Nov. 2012).
Aspire Public Schools, a K-12 charter group serving more than 12,500 overwhelmingly low-income students in California, gives all new teachers such a coach for up to two years ("Helping Teachers Learn," The New York Times, Apr. 14). I expect to see more charter schools adopting this approach because most employ non-union teachers. As a result, they're free to innovate.
Contrary to what critics assert, coaches are often harder in their evaluations than principals. That's probably because they are certified in the subject being taught and consider more than mere methodology. Further, they've seen the effects of poor instruction on other teachers who happen to inherit students from their ineffective colleagues. Do these master teachers have the courage to recommend firing? I believe they do. They certainly take no pleasure in doing so, but at the same time they recognize their responsibility to students.
In research universities, peer review of research has long been the accepted method of evaluation. I think it's time to apply a similar approach to instruction in K-12. With pressure for teacher accountability mounting, the time is right.