Jonathan Walters is the Executive Editor of GOVERNING. He has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.E-mail: Jowaz22@gmail.com
Think of it as rehab. In Toledo, Ohio, when teachers underperform, their principal calls for help: A consulting teacher -- an experienced veteran who is already working in the school system -- is assigned to work with the troubled teacher. The idea is to get the struggling teacher to, as one principal put it, “step back up their game.” If the reboot doesn’t work? Under the rules of the school system’s Peer Assistance Review -- PAR -- program, the teacher can be terminated.
In most public school systems, teacher-union contracts make the firing of an incompetent teacher almost impossible. And most educators know where that leads. The teachers either remain in their classrooms to the detriment of their students or the principal passes the teacher on to another school. As a last resort, New York City had its infamous “rubber room” where failing teachers were essentially warehoused -- with pay -- for years.
That’s how it’s been for generations. But in the past year, the issue of teacher tenure -- the inability of a school system to fire incompetent veteran teachers -- has become politically charged. Pressure has increased on unions to prove that they care about retaining the best and brightest, and shedding the least productive. This year, at least five governors -- in Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada and New Jersey -- are calling on their legislators to pass bills that eliminate or dismantle teacher tenure.
And that’s what makes the PAR program relevant today. With 30 years of track record under its belt, Toledo’s PAR has figured out a nonconfrontational and inexpensive way to have top teachers team up with school principals to mentor new teachers, while working together to weed out weak performers -- both rookies and vets. Fought over through several collective bargaining cycles before union and management agreed to it, Toledo’s approach is now recognized as one of the most effective ways of ensuring that top teachers stay in the profession -- and that those who clearly can’t cut it, do not.
Yet out of a universe of 15,000-plus districts nationwide, fewer than 100 have adopted PAR or PAR-like programs. That may soon change. At a time when more responsibility (and blame or credit) is being freighted on teachers for student performance and achievement, some teacher-union leaders are showing signs of interest in working with school administrators on a system of collaborative teacher support, evaluation and diversion. PAR, in short, is moving into the spotlight -- studied and discussed openly in academic, policy and teacher-union circles. But will that be enough to push implementation?
For Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, this second look at PAR “is a silver lining in this whole focus on evaluation.” Weingarten, a longtime proponent of labor and management cooperation around peer assistance and review, notes that programs like PAR suggest “that we’re really trying to figure out how to better support, nurture and evaluate teachers.” That said, Weingarten points to two fundamental reasons why PAR hasn’t caught on, despite its success in the districts that have adopted it.
First and probably foremost, she says, is the age-old problem of the tradition-bound educational hierarchy. That’s the one where management knows best, teachers teach and differences between management and teachers are either worked out during heated collective bargaining sessions or during combative discipline and grievance proceedings. But if U.S. schools are going to graduate from what Weingarten characterizes as “the industrial model of education,” and shift to “knowledge-based education,” it’s going to take partnership, which includes a new kind of leadership, both on the part of management and on the part of unions. “You’ve had the Joel Kleins and Michelle Rhees of the world taking a page out of the old-time business model,” says Weingarten, referring to the former and controversial school superintendents of New York City and Washington, D.C., respectively. “And their view was, ‘We know best and we’re going to tell you what to do.’” That view more than any other, says Weingarten, has prevented peer review from rooting more broadly in school districts nationally.
At the same time, though, Weingarten admits that some local union leaders resist PAR reflexively, and others don’t think teachers have any business evaluating peers. “It’s tougher to work together than it is to fight in the sandbox,” she says. “Ultimately we have to change the culture there, too.”
The other obvious problem is financial: Where PAR programs are done properly, they require that a cadre of high-performing “consulting teachers” be pulled out of the classroom -- while getting paid full-time salaries -- to partner with the principals in their schools to do intensive mentoring and teacher evaluation. In this era of tight school budgets, losing high-performing front-line teachers to a new way of doing business can be a tough sell.
Hillsborough County, Fla., which for years has hoped to implement a PAR program -- both the school superintendent and the teacher-union president wanted it -- found a way around the fiscal roadblock. The school system won a seven-year, $100 million Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant that school superintendent MaryEllen Elia says will allow the district not only to cut top teachers loose to mentor and evaluate, but also to evaluate the impacts of PAR on everything from teacher retention and competence to student achievement.
While otherwise-willing school districts may be waiting for a financial angel to arrive, there is evidence that such systems are in and of themselves cost effective. Indeed, Weingarten calls the economic argument against them “penny wise and pound foolish,” adding that “the willingness to work together doesn’t cost a nickel.”
Actually it may save a nickel or two. In a soon-to-be released paper on the benefit-cost ratio of PAR programs, authors John P. Papay and Susan Moore Johnson, with the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, studied seven school districts to evaluate whether peer assistance and review is a cost-effective approach to supporting and managing teachers. According to the study, PAR costs an average of $4,833 a year to mentor a novice teacher, and $8,350 a year to work with a troubled, tenured teacher.
For the novice side of the program, the researchers took into account the expenditures for working closely with rookie teachers -- PAR holds new teachers’ hands as they find their way through that difficult first year -- and the savings that ensue from an increase in their retention. The latter was a bit tricky. Savings achieved by retaining new teachers are not particularly definitive. But there are clear costs associated with recruiting and hiring new teachers that can at least be offset by the kind of mentoring that can help keep promising newcomers in the profession. The value of helping a rookie improve and stay is, of course, incalculable.
As to the veteran-teacher side of the program, Papay and Johnson looked at peer-assistance costs and the offset of lower arbitration and dismissal costs. What they found is that PAR intervention with tenured teachers is a clear winner. According to their study, firing a tenured teacher under the traditional system cost an average of $128,941, versus the roughly $8,000 that PAR spends to counsel them out of the profession. The bottom line, says Johnson, is that “this is a really solid, sound, sensible approach to helping new teachers and to either retaining or dismissing veterans.”
There is one other clear, if less tangible, benefit to PAR programs, says Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, a which outlines methods for improving classroom effectiveness. That benefit comes from recognizing highly effective teachers, thus elevating the profession as a whole. “The blind spot of most school districts,” he says, “is that they spend all their time thinking about their weakest teachers, and not long thinking about strong teachers.” Creating a group of consulting teachers who are recognized experts and mentors, he points out, helps break that unproductive cycle. (Lemov is the son of Governing contributing editor Penelope Lemov.)
While there’s widespread agreement among experts and practitioners on the professional and economic value of PAR, one huge question continues to hang over the practice: Do schools that have implemented PAR programs see improved student performance?
A big part of that answer revolves around a long-standing debate about the influence of teachers on a student’s ability to learn and to advance educationally. Some hold that effective teachers can mold even the most troubled and disadvantaged child into college material. Others acknowledge that although good teachers can exert important and positive influence, family, neighborhood and peer pressures play an equal role in whether a kid succeeds educationally.
One place that will be trying to find some answers to that complicated argument is Hillsborough County. As part of the Gates Foundation grant, the school district will be tracking students and achievement to see whether PAR influences student performance.
The school district’s assessment department will be following and parsing test scores but doing it in a way that will allow the district to “draw conclusions that have accuracy and validity,” says Jean Clements, president of the county’s teacher union. “The more data points you have, the more valid your conclusions, and we now have the resources to apply the computing power and expertise to tracking lots of measures related to student achievement and what influences it.”
As the results from Hillsborough begin to gel, Clements has no doubt about what the data will show and that is that “we have adopted a highly effective system for improving student achievement.”
Certainly plenty of people in the education business will, like Clements, be watching the Hillsborough results closely. But for those who have experience with PAR, there doesn’t seem to be any point in waiting. “This is really the 2.0 version of teaching,” says Weingarten. “It’s throwing teachers the keys and saying, ‘Do it.’”