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Teaching Career Pathways: Peer Evaluation

January 30, 2013

report2coverNote: in November 2012, Accomplished California Teachers (ACT) released the policy report “Promoting Quality Teaching: New Approaches to Compensation and Career Pathways.”  The following post is the third in a series of profiles showing how California teacher leaders are beginning to develop and follow diversified career pathways.  California teachers, and our peers around the nation, are looking for opportunities to innovate and lead in our field, but without having to leave the classroom.  Our argument is that educational leadership will improve the more its carried out by those still in the classroom, and that students will benefit from having more accomplished educators remaining the in classroom rather than taking on entirely non-teaching positions.

This profile focuses on the peer evaluation program at San Juan Unified School District.  Similar to the Algebra Success Project described in a prior blog post, this program has already been recognized as an exemplary approach for promoting quality teaching, and as a model for labor-management engagement.  The policy recommendations in the ACT report, if adopted, would pave the way for more districts to adopt similar programs, and to cultivate the conditions that lead to similar innovations aimed at improving student learning.

Cheryl Dultz is a teacher in the San Juan Unified School District, now in the 27th year of her career, but not her 27th year in the classroom.  For the past three years, Dultz has been working as a Consulting Teacher (CT), sort of a hybrid teacher coach and evaluator in the district’s Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program, or Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA).  Her colleague, Cindy Noyes, offers a slightly less precise accounting of her veteran educator status – “32 years?  Something like that.”  Like Dultz, Noyes spent some years as a peer evaluator, but she is now, by design, back in the classroom, as the teachers who work in the PAR program have term limits of four years.  The system they’ve helped to establish, and their experiences in it, provide insights that could serve well all education stakeholders looking for ideas to expand and advance quality teaching.

For better and for worse, teacher evaluation has become one of the main topics of debate in recent education reform efforts.  There is a wide consensus that in many, if not most public schools in California, teacher evaluations are too superficial and too infrequent to to be useful or productive; however, like most generalizations, the exceptions are worth noting.  There are also political reasons that some people cling to the generalization and eschew the exceptions, often to advance the idea of using student test scores and value-added measurement to solve the problems.  The fundamental flaws with testing as an evaluation method have been thoroughly dissected many times in this space, but regardless of opinions on that topic, it certainly benefits all parties to agree on some guiding principles and implementation priorities to bring about ever more effective teacher evaluation.

One of the most important steps in a productive discussion on teacher evaluation is to clarify the purpose of the evaluation procedure.  In public debate and mainstream media, the model of evaluation often implied in comments and recommendations is grounded in supervision and quality control: distinguish the good, bad, and average teachers, then reward the best, support the average, and fire the worst.  However, when Accomplished California Teachers studied this topic for our policy report (2010), we found a strong consensus among teachers that what we want is a robust evaluation system that helps every teacher grow and improve; we welcomed the idea of using student work in evaluations (and many of us had voluntarily completed National Board Certification, which requires the use of student work to demonstrate accomplished teaching).  We also recommended that peers should be involved in evaluations, partly due to the value of the shared understanding of classrooms and content, and partly due to the need to distribute leadership and workloads more effectively than the current system which overburdens most California school administrators.

Peer evaluation can be a hard sell, on both sides of the evaluative process.  Teachers worry that differences of opinion and style will have a negative effect on evaluations (which can happen with administrator evaluations as well), and from a labor standpoint, some teachers prefer to maintain a clear divide between labor and management, ensuring that when problems do arise, local teachers associations won’t find themselves on both sides of a dispute that could cause internal divisiveness or muddle the processes spelled out in contracts.  Conversely, some observers worry that peer evaluations will be too soft, with teachers giving each other an easy pass.  Thus, where there are good peer evaluation programs established, it’s important to call attention to what works and thereby foster conditions elsewhere that will lead to further innovations that strengthen the teaching profession.

The peer evaluation program in San Juan Unified, carefully modeled on a similar system in Poway Unified, was established by way of mutual agreements and constructive negotiations between district and union leadership.  A recent study sponsored by SRI International and the Stuart Foundation, investigated the effectiveness of these two programs, examining a decade’s worth of documentation, supplemented by many days’ worth of direct observation of practice.  Lead authors Dan Humphrey and Julia Koppich shared their findings in an event co-sponsored by Accomplished California Teachers.  At the time, I summarized their findings this way:

teacher evaluators, pulled out of the classroom and given the time and training to focus on evaluation, provided much more feedback than administrators, more specific and relevant feedback, and more of their time to coach and guide teachers who needed that support.  As an additional benefit, Humphrey and Koppich note that labor-management relations in these districts are more positive, more professional and collegial.  The common misconception or fear around peer evaluation is that the system would not be rigrorous and substantive, but decades’ worth of evidence in these districts demonstrates the opposite.

As encouraging as this research may be regarding the potential for a high-quality peer evaluation system, it’s important to note several conditions that make it work.  As suggested above, it takes strong leadership from districts, school boards, and local teachers associations.  It takes trust, as the Consulting Teachers end up making personnel decisions (as part of a district panel that includes equal numbers of teachers and district administrators); their effectiveness is a function of how fellow teachers, administrators, and the school board respect their judgment, and the quality of the system and process that helps them reach their conclusions.

So this type of peer evaluation is not necessarily the kind of system to be entrusted to relatively inexperienced teachers, simply by virtue of their having outlasted most of their original cohort who entered teaching only a few years earlier.  Dultz describes a rigorous application process involving a written application, interview, and classroom observations.  Her own career pathway prior to this step included collaboration with teacher educators from Sacramento State, work as an instructional coach and technology integration specialist, and participation in action research studies with two highly esteemed education experts, Debra Pickering and Robert Marzano.  Noyes also had a strong background in teacher support at the school and county level.  But having the background is only a starting point.

Consulting Teachers commit to a multi-year process that involves ongoing training on assessment, observations, and holding difficult conversations.  Among the tools the use are the New Teacher Center’s “Continuum of Mentoring Practice” and a coaching model created at Columbia University Teachers’ College.

While the content of this post has important links to the first ACT policy report on teacher evaluation, the purpose of the post is really to support our second policy report, which advocates the creation of expanded career options for teachers, along with compensation increases commensurate with added expertise and professional responsibilities.  As we heard in our own report planning, and from our colleagues in the Bay Area New Millennium Initiative, many skilled and motivated teachers seek ways to grow in the profession and give back to it.  They want ways to continue teaching, but also want to branch out as contributors and leaders in school improvement efforts at the school and district levels and beyond.

With that in mind, I asked Dultz and Noyes about the nature of the work they’ve done as teacher leaders outside the classroom.  Dultz answered,  “When teachers are pulled from classroom there’s variety of roles they can go into; maybe just doing professional development, maybe doing policy work.  But with this approach I’m in classrooms and with teachers and students, not in a district office.  [The program is] a great collaboration between the district and [teachers] association to improve practice.”  The improvement in practice is not only for the teachers who have peer evaluators come into their classrooms, but also for the evaluator who eventually returns to the classroom.  Dultz has consistently heard that teachers return better than they left, that they hone their craft even more by helping others.  Noyes elaborates, “the CT role is like holding a mirror up, helping teachers see their practice, look inward at yourself, and it made me do that too. …[We] have to uphold [teaching] standards.  There are times when things don’t go well [in the classroom], and I reflect back on what I did.  I’m not sure I’d be as reflective if I hadn’t had that time out of the classroom.  You can’t blame the kids, or other factors.  You just have to problem solve and make it better the next day.”

Another benefit for teachers is the exposure to different classrooms, schools, subjects and grade-levels.  Noyes suggests that too much time in one setting can mean that “your views get warped.  This job gives you a bigger picture.”  I was mildly skeptical, as a high school English teacher, about what kind of support I might receive from an elementary school teacher like Noyes if she came to evaluate me.  She responded, “I think I actually made the biggest difference in secondary.  Secondary teachers had the content knowledge more than the pedagogy, and everyone I worked with was accepting.  I got hugs from people as they realized, ‘Oh, you’re here to help me!’  They never held me at arm’s length.”  Dultz acknowledges that sometimes when a teacher has been referred to PAR, some “start off reticent, but then they see the CT gathering evidence aimed at improvement, and relationships improve.”

This blog post would be doing a disservice to Cheryl Dultz and Cindy Noyes, to their colleagues and district, and to interested education stakeholders, were I to omit mention of some lingering challenges for the program in San Juan Unified.  No complex and dynamic enterprise like this comes without costs and difficulties.  Dultz points out that while it’s good to send the Consulting Teachers back to the classroom, in the years that they spend as CTs they may miss out on training and professional development focused on their teaching needs, and thus have to catch up with peers when it comes to new curriculum, technology, instructional methods, or school initiatives.  This concern has the attention of the PAR panel that oversees the CTs’ work, and they are already working to improve in this area.

Noyes added that while the program is working well overall, it may still be missing some potential beneficiaries.  There is an ongoing effort to improve coordination with principals, a process that has been aided by having a former member of the PAR panel now in the position of human resources director.

For teachers who might be thinking that peer evaluation might be a way to avoid burnout, Noyes cautions that the work is no less intensive than teaching – maybe even more so: “It’s not easy.  When you’re supporting and evaluating a peer, you have to be descriptive, and you have to be critical.  Their job is on the line, you can’t sugarcoat it. You’re working to improve the practices of teachers, so you have to have the evidence of that practice. Writing those reports takes a lot out of you.”

The current scope of peer evaluation in San Juan Unified and in Poway Unified is limited to teachers needing extra support (and in Poway, new teachers).  However, with the support of an NEA grant, San Juan Unified is working on a number of innovations in teaching career pathways, including the possible expansion of peer evaluation.  This work represents another concrete example of innovative teachers showing what’s possible as we seek to improve schools and strengthen the profession.  For more on the effectiveness of peer evaluation as one component of that work, I direct readers once again to last year’s study, which provides ample and convincing evidence that peer evaluation beats the standard model for volume and quality of feedback, and for improving labor-management relations.  For the broader argument in favor of expanding career pathways and improving teacher compensation systems, please see read Promoting Quality Teaching: New Approaches to Compensation and Career Pathways.

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