The NEA and AFT both advocate peer-review and peer-assistance programs for teachers.
Teachers don't criticize a colleague's work, at least not for the record: That has been the hard-and-fast rule in most school districts. Yet last summer, in a reversal of official policy, the powerful National Education Association voted that teachers be allowed to evaluate the performance of other instructors, and even aid in their dismissal. The NEA -- the nation's largest teacher's union -- has about 2.3 million members.
And what is happening now, as a result of that resolution?
"Peer-assistance and peer-review programs are voluntary. The resolution wasn't a mandate. We're in the process of providing information to state and local affiliates who choose to pursue peer assistance and/or peer review," says Marcia Stein, who is based at the NEA headquarters in Washington, D.C. "NEA affiliates can have a peer-assistance program without a peer-review program."
Adoption of the peer-review policy was a triumph for Bob Chase, NEA president, who has touted a "new unionism" since he took office two years ago. "In my three decades as an NEA activist, I have encountered few issues that stir up such passions," Chase stated in the November 1997 NEA Today in reference to the issue of peer review.
In the past, responding to critics of peer review, Chase has insisted, "we can support peer assistance and review without embracing the doleful argument that all public education's problems stem from bad teachers and bad teacher unions." The new peer-review resolution allows states and local systems to establish peer assistance and review programs that would be run by union teachers and the school district.
Seattle and some cities in Ohio had already set up such programs, at a time when the NEA officially opposed them.
The true fate of peer review actually rests with hundreds of local NEA affiliates that must decide whether to adopt peer-assistance and -review programs.
So far, the number of teachers' unions backing peer-review programs has been relatively small. Most are affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, which has 940,000 members. But the programs have not spread widely, despite AFT encouragement.
One exception to the norm among NEA affiliates is the Columbus (Ohio) Education Association, which has operated a peer-review program for more 12 years. In Columbus the NEA local chooses 26 top-notch teachers to be full-time "consulting teachers." Under the Columbus contract, every newly hired teacher is assigned a consulting teacher. Consultants mentor new teachers and have a voice in determining whether a new teacher is retained. About 85 percent of new teachers are teaching in Columbus five years later. (In other urban districts, according to the NEA, only 50 percent of new hires, on the average, continue to teach after three years.)
Possibly the first peer-review program in the nation is that of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, an AFT affiliate, which launched its program in 1981. In his "Where We Stand" statement of September 15, 1996, then-AFT President Albert Shanker wrote, "In Toledo, consulting teachers spend up to three years helping to train and evaluate new teachers, and they play a major role in deciding which new teachers will get tenure. Tenured teachers who are in trouble get one-on-one help from colleagues, and it continues until the troubled teacher has either improved to the point of being successful or a termination is recommended."
Throughout most of the country, the issue of peer assistance and review has been controversial, and in some places, it has been divisive. Proponents maintain that peer assistance and review will help floundering teachers and possibly save their jobs. Opponents argue that it will pit one teacher against another and threaten the unity of local union associations.
Advocates of peer assistance and review point out that they would oppose a local union's judging members' competence without also assisting teachers who need help professionally. But, they maintain, as long as the main focus of a program is to help teachers improve -- and as long as a decision to recommend dismissal or counsel a teacher to leave the profession is used only as a final move when help fails to improve the teacher's performance -- they are comfortable with peer-review.
Widespread concern over student achievement in the United States has sparked movement toward new options by NEA and AFT members as well as parents and legislators. Peer-assistance and -review programs are among those options. For the first time, both unions have allowed the issue of teacher quality to be included in new contracts so that poor teachers can be removed from the classroom.
But many teachers maintain such a policy is unnecessary. Bill Harshbarger, a 17-year high school history teacher in Mattoon, Illinois, and a member of NEA Today's Local Editor Advisory Board, maintained in NEA Today, "Every district has a procedure to fire teachers. In fact, teachers are being fired or forced to resign all the time. Creating a new layer of bureaucracy to duplicate what's already being done is a misuse of valuable teaching resources."
"Nearing the end of my career, I have a vested interest in leaving my profession in capable hands," stated Linda Lohr, a 30-year teaching veteran and consulting teacher in Columbus, in NEA Today. "I want to keep the evaluation and retention of good teachers in the hands of practitioners for whom classroom performance is the top priority. And I believe our consulting teachers have the time, expertise, and perspective necessary to do the job right."
Article by Sharon Cromwell
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