Praise for peer evaluations

In 2 districts, teachers assess other teachers

Contrary to the common belief that teachers cannot evaluate their peers objectively – and shouldn’t try to – in San Juan Unified “consulting teachers” do just that for a teacher who received a principal’s unsatisfactory review. In Poway Unified, specially assigned teachers not only evaluate struggling tenured teachers but also new, probationary teachers.

In both districts the teachers pass on their findings to a board composed of teachers and administrators whose recommendation whether that teacher should be retained or fired has invariably been accepted by the superintendent.

The programs in Poway and San Juan, known as Peer Assistance and Review, not only “give the lie to critics who assert that unionized teachers will never judge a colleague’s performance.” But – legislators take notice – they also “provide clear evidence that PAR can be a rigorous alternative to traditional forms of teacher evaluation and development,” according to “Peer Review: Getting Serious About Teacher Support and Evaluation, the findings of an intensive study of the two districts by SRI International and J. Koppich and Associates.**

Unions have been adept in gumming up the process of firing even the worst  performers in order to protect members from potentially arbitrarily and poorly done evaluations. But, with incentives and pressure from the Obama administration, change to evaluations is spreading nationwide and it’s inevitable in California. (AB 5, the primary evaluation bill sponsored by Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, will get serious attention next year.)

Some state legislatures have adopted crude test-score-based evaluations. Though that’s not likely here, the choice facing the California Teachers Assn. and the California Federation of Teachers is whether to resist and weaken or to embrace and lead.

PAR, according to the report, presents a chance to turn the standard, top-down model of evaluation on its head.

PAR is not a new program. Poway Unified adopted it 25 years ago, based on the first PAR in Toledo, and San Juan Unified added it in the late ’90s. Other districts did, too,  after Gov. Gray Davis put money behind the program. But many districts abandoned PAR after the state cut funding, and few districts have remained as true to PAR’s intent, despite its costs, as San Juan and Poway.

“We’re proud of the program and have worked hard to keep its integrity” and its purpose of using “one’s peers to contribute collectively to improve teaching and learning,” said Tom Alves, executive director of the San Juan Teachers Association.

Balance between remediation and evaluation

California had one of  the highest ratio of administrators to students in the nation before the latest round of state K-12 cuts. The common complaint of teachers is that principals do drive-by evaluations, and many don’t know the pedagogy of the courses or grades they’re evaluating. Adding serious, regular evaluations with more extensive observations and conversations will prove daunting.

From a practical standpoint, peer review can ease the burden. But the study found that there’s a different orientation. “Given the limited amount of time the principals actually spent with the participating teachers, the focus of their evaluation was often primarily to identify deficiencies but not to develop a strategy to correct them,” it said.

Consulting teachers are released from other duties to work intensively over the course of a year with poor performers (plus beginning teachers in Poway’s case), suggesting better teaching methods while measuring teachers’ improvement. The double goals of evaluation and remediation require a delicate balance, and the selection of consulting teachers is critical. They must be respected for mastery in the classroom and have people skills to gain the trust of the referred teachers and principals. In San Juan, the eight consulting teachers, serving a 41,000-student district, serve four-year assignments.

Governing board members must work closely with consulting teachers and each other. Teachers comprise the majority (four out of seven in San Juan, two out of five in Poway), although recommendations require a supermajority, and board discussions haven’t broken down along union-management lines, said principal researcher Julia Koppich. Because the consulting teachers’ reports are detailed and extensive, and the board usually decides by consensus, superintendents have not disputed the boards’ recommendations, Alves said.

Teachers maintain their rights under the contract to contest the evaluation process. But when consulting teachers and boards build what one union president called “an airtight case,” teachers rarely contest the findings.

Teachers are referred to PAR if they fail two, and occasionally one, of the five categories of the California Standards for the Teaching Profession. In the years covered by the study, 13 of the 20 Poway veteran teachers referred to PAR completed remediation and continued teaching; the other seven left the district. Of the 28 San Juan teachers in PAR, 16 returned to the classroom, four were recommended for dismissal, five left voluntarily, and three remain in the program.

The report noted the low number of PAR referrals (an average of only 1 per year in Poway), which it attributed both to the reluctance of many principals to build the case for an unsatisfactory rating, and in Poway’s case, to the fact that 60 percent of the district’s teachers already had been screened when they were novice teachers. (About 95 percent of novice teachers have gotten favorable recommendations so far – a high rate.)

Poway is the only district to use PAR to evaluate beginning teachers in each of their first two years. It has had to do so carefully – and possibly illegally – because state law technically prohibits PAR for nontenured teachers. The Legislature created BTSA (Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment) for coaching novice teachers. The report recommends the elimination of the prohibition.

Can PAR be expanded?

Officials in both San Juan and Poway have indicated an interest in extending PAR to broader evaluations. Alves said the union has requested that the section of the contract relating to evaluations be reopened for discussion. Already, it has agreed to extend PAR to evaluate preschool teachers in the district.

The PAR process would have to be tweaked to shift from strictly remediation to evaluation and professional development. The cost of freeing up additional teacher time, with budgets so tight, would be a complication. (If AB 5 passes as a state mandate, some costs would be reimbursed.)

Koppich expressed optimism. “There is no reason why you can’t do evaluations with observations using this type of program for all teachers. It’s an analog for a new system.”

And, she said, the collaboration and problem-solving in the governance board will spill over to other labor-management relations.

** The study was funded by the Stuart Foundation, one of the underwriters of this blog. In coming days, I’ll be writing about The College Ready Promise, a project of four charter school organization to implement a new teacher evaluation system. To take an advance look at what they’re up to, go here. You can contact me at


  1. I believe this is a similar system to that documented by Learning Matters (John Merrow).  PBS has a video online.  The air date was Dec 14th 2010.

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  2. All well and good for K-12 I suppose, but in public higher ed, peer review is little more than a pro forma released-time generating procedure or the faculty reviewers  After nearly 20 years as an adunct-contingent instructor at several community colleges, I have personally witnessed “peer review” permit full-time instructors, especially those ner retirement, show up to class only one third of the time, rarely hold office hours, assign no gradable homework, and generate lines of students complaining to the dept chair about horrible teaching.  Tenure really is a job for life, despite (wink wink) possible negative peer review evaluations.   Conversely, I have known very rigorous  ad-con instructors who recieve terrific evaluations for many semesters, but who have been “un-rehired” with no reason givien–one is not needed, since ad-cons are  permanently “at will” instructors, ones who comprise over two thrids of public higer ed’s teachers.   A single comment from one disgrunteled student’s instructor evaluations can get a truly great teacher un-rehired.  Because K-12 does not have this awful two-tier system, peer review can at least be examined in more obejective, logical, and productive terms.

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  3. This is an encouraging study (or I should say, the summary is encouraging).  I have spoken several times with a former director of the Poway program, and she also participated briefly in the teacher evaluation report prepared by Accomplished California Teachers.  My current superintendent also had experience as an administrator in Poway.  While no system is perfect, they shared an opinion that Poway had an effective program in place.  I would also add that peer evaluation has been the norm in Palo Alto secondary schools for many years (though the implementation of that is in a bit of a transition at the moment as we revamp that part of the contract).  The ACT report also noted that a peer evaluation system in Ohio (Toledo, I think) was removing teachers with poor evaluations at a rate that exceeded other traditional systems.
    All of these systems were implemented in unionized districts and with union partnership and support.  So if you’re going to generalize that “Unions have been adept in gumming up the process” it would be fair to generalize further – that in public school districts that have innovative, effective, lasting reforms in teacher evaluation, unions have been fully engaged partners in reform.  The same holds true if we look beyond the very specific practice of peer evaluation.  Innovative evaluation (and pay) systems that end up working seem to spring up in places with strong unions and good partnerships.  (I’m thinking of Minnesota and Denver, in addition to the examples already offered).
    A good follow-up study would be to examine the conditions that lead to the most collegial and productive relationships between unions and districts/states.  I’ll bet you that when you pay teachers well and provide adequate resources for schools, you can make all sorts of progress on other fronts.  I think when teachers are being squeezed on the pay and benefits front, all the other issues become more contentious too.  (I would further suggest that similar dynamics probably play out in other industries.  When people are treated well, there’s more trust and more willingness to look at alternatives in the way we work).

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  4. Thanks for pointing out another exceptional district, David. If only state union leaders were as progressive.


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  5. I too personally believe that people do better when they are well-paid and treated with respect, but that cuts both ways when one is dealing with an aggressive wages/working conditions-only  teachers union that foments discontent and low morale at every opportunity at every school site in a district.
    When such a description prevails in a big urban school district such as San Diego Unified; when the Board of Education majority is essentially elected with money coming from the powerful state CTA through the local union SDEA; when teacher raises are promised during a recession while  K-3 class size grows annually; when the newest teachers are pink-slipped in favor of their long-tenured peers, wreaking havoc on the low-performing poor schools where new teachers are assigned; when the Superintendent is a nice but weak ex-Admiral — well, under such conditions I just have to say that I disagree with Mr. Cohen that “unions have been fully engaged partners in reform.”
    Admittedly, such conditions can only arise when others are not living up to their social obligations: the union members that do care about reform but won’t confront a narrow leadership and a community that allows special interest candidates to run and win Board seats and tolerates non-educator superintendents.

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  6. John,
    Your shortsightedness and flippant remark is very poor for a “journalist” and is one made just to insight a response.  Well, here is a response.
    The California Federation of Teachers pushed for Peer Assistance and REVIEW, the review being the most important part.  In fact, as a local president in Carpinteria, I (currently a statewide teachers union leader) not only lead the district in revamping the evaluation process based on the California Teaching Standards, created a PAR system that included new, volunteer and negative evaluated teachers, but also sat on the first board of the PAR program.  And I have voted to uphold the cooperating teacher’s decision to not reelect a probationary teacher.
    It is not a badge of pride that I acted to let a teacher go, but it is one of pride that a system was in place that provided review, feedback, and decision making; feedback (or assistance as we called it) is the most important part.  The leaders of the teachers unions do indeed care about the profession and do in fact care about the students that our members teach (and that we taught).  If you’d care to meet one of us, maybe you would know that we are fighting for an exemplary education for our future.  Instead you act as a lousy journalist printing false opinions instead of facts.
    Oh, and yes, the small school district I came from did have to drop PAR because the funding had been cut to the level where it was no longer sustainable.
    Jeffery M Freitas
    Secretary Treasurer
    California Federation of Teachers

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  7. I am glad that PAR is thriving in the relatively few places that have adopted it and that the few courageous union leaders who pioneered the programs and pushed for them have stuck to their guns.
    However, the fact remains that the programs have not spread as far or as vast as necessary for teachers to claim control over the quality development and quality protection aspects of their occupation.  For every union leader like Jeff Freitas, there are a score who still think that teacher evaluation is management’s work and that union involvement in judgments about teaching represent a violation of solidarity.
    Along with Julia Koppich, I’ve advocated robust peer review programs for more than a quarter-century. I hope that now it is, indeed, an idea whose time has come.  (Readers who are interested in earlier reports and case studies of peer review can find some of them at

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  8. In Berkeley, we have also used BPAR very successfully.  And, I agree that first there have to be a good relationship with the teacher’s union for the program to take off.  That has certainly been true in Berkeley.  With both progressive union leadership AND progressive school district leadership (that stressed transparency and community involvement, including labor involvement in budget recommendations), the foundation was laid that has made BPAR successful.  It is not easy for a teacher to agree to be a peer reviewer if their peers see them as “laying with the enemy”.   But, the truth is that teachers are PROFESSIONALS and as a whole are NOT supportive of teachers that aren’t doing or at least aren’t TRYING to do a good job, so with a foundation of trust, teachers are more than glad to be part of the solution.  The best outcome – peers and District is that the referred teacher gets the support they needed to become an excellent teacher.  But, what I like about BPAR is that if the outcome does lead to eventual dismissal (and teachers still have all of their due process rights), it is based upon union and District knowing that all was done to rectify rather than just punish.   And, let me just say, that fostering a sense of partnership with the teacher’s union has paid off in many other ways as well.  Of course, labor and managment will also have some differences, BUT moving toward mutual respect and agreeing that disagreeing doesn’t have to mean universal confrontation, has done SO much for us in tackling student achievement, campus atmosphere, and yes, even the current budget crunch.

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  9. “Unions have been adept in gumming up the process of firing even the worst  performers …” Not true! Check your facts and look again. The “gumming up” comes from incompentent administrators that don’t know how to properly evaluate and process a teacher out. I’ve seen this process from start to finish.  Meanwhile, I thank my union for the protections I and so many others have fought for.

    A 25 year veteran teacher
    PAR Joint Panel member

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  10. Ms. O’Neill Zimmerman,
    I’m entirely open to discussing differences of opinion and different experiences with unions and districts.  However, if you’re going to quote me, please get the whole idea in there.  I crafted that particular sentence rather carefully, as it turns out, and I qualified the main clause which you quoted without its subordinate.  I wrote, “in public school districts that have innovative, effective, lasting reforms in teacher evaluation, unions have been fully engaged partners in reform.”
    If I’m wrong or if there are examples that undermine the claim as I wrote it, please share.

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  11. It’s amazing that such dinosaurs (performance reviews, not the people) are
    still around. Yet despite the outcry against performance reviews, there’s
    nothing wrong with them that can’t be fixed by getting managers off of center
    stage. Top management can fix the basic problems the performance appraisal
    system faces.

    Critics argue that performance reviews not only don’t accomplish what
    they’re supposed to do -  that is,
    improve performance, enhance employee skills and achieve planned outcomes – they
    have unintended negative consequences. In many cases, unfortunately, that’s
    true. But it doesn’t have to be that way. What companies need to abolish is not
    performance review itself, but the idea that it’s a “management tool. Here are
    some practiced paradigms that must be discarded:

    Performance Review is designed, as the name suggests, in support of
    managers. If you believe this, your management is one of the roadblocks to exceptional
    performance. The most useful performance review support work relationships
    between employees (managers too are employees). Both parties need to address
    the question of how to best serve the goals and outcomes and align their work efforts.

    Performance review is a management tool. 
    Managers are not necessarily the best qualified to assess their staff’s accomplishments.
    In fact, they may have a very limited or biased view. A more complete and
    accurate picture results when employees and managers seek feedback from a
    variety of customers, team leaders, professional peers, and others inside or
    from outside the unit.

    Performance reviews include judgments from a “higher authority”. Judgments
    produce compliant workers – people who are told what to do – not innovative
    ones. People hate performance reviews because most of them are fault-finding.
    How much better to ask, “What did we learn from this? What can we each do different
    the next time?”

    The manager is responsible for obtaining input from the employees. 21st
    century employees can’t assume a passive role in performance review,
    providing  “tough-minded” self-assessments
    and valuable insights only on request. They must take the initiative,
    soliciting feedback from their managers and others. No risk taking to solicit the
    complete picture and no learning means no improvements.

    Managers should be trained in performance reviews, then prepare their
    employees for the process. If performance review is to be a productive
    partnership with employees taking the active role and both parties committed to
    exchanging knowledge and ideas, managers and employee need to be trained

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  12. I have read your article & I believe that all children can learn and be motivated to grow in an individualized, literacy rich environment that utilizes technology to promote realistic and purposeful project-based learning.
    <a href=””>preschool San Diego, Poway Tutors</a>

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  1. Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day… - This Week’s “Round-Up” Of Good School Reform Posts & Articles
  2. Report: Overworked, undertrained principals | Thoughts on Public Education
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