Another take on the promise of peer review

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Faced with the fact that there are almost no data out there that support the effectiveness of peer review programs, we've continued to express skepticism (here and here for example) about this approach to teacher evaluation that teachers' unions are so keen on spreading. Peer review programs a la the Toledo model and several Toledo-esque programs in cities like Columbus and Poway, California, focus mostly on rookies, and appear to rid school systems of very few of their weakest teachers. The last time we offered this view, it drew a response from Dan Weisberg, the labor relations chief for the New York City schools. He reported that a reinvented peer program in Gotham was showing promising results.

Launched after the 2006 contract renegotiation, New York's program differs from the Toledo model in some important ways. First, it is reserved solely for tenured teachers in danger of being formally charged with incompetence. Second, teachers can decline to participate. Third,the UFT and the district have jointly selected a contractor to assign peer observers (mostly retired teachers) who are not members of the union or employees of the school district. In contrast, the Toledo version uses teachers working for the district and selected by a joint union-district committee in which the union dominates.

Perhaps the most important distinction between the two models is that a teacher's enrollment in the New York program does not eliminate the principal from the equation, as is the case in Toledo. Rather, the principal continues to observe and evaluate even as the peer observer offers assistance over a period of 10 to 12 weeks. After that, the observer issues a report either agreeing or disagreeing with the principal's assessment, often the deciding factor in whether the principal will proceed with firing.

According to Weisberg, as of September of this year, 62 teachers had been through the program. In nine out of 10 cases the peer reviewers agreed that the teacher was incompetent. If a firing goes to a hearing, as many have already, the evaluations of both the peer teacher and the principal are admissible evidence. While the results of those hearings have yet to be announced, Weisberg contends that the number of teachers who exit the system this year will be significantly greater than the eight to 10 typical of years past. We'll watch with interest.