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Ohio School District Uses Unique Peer Evaluations to Grade Teachers

December 14, 2010 at 4:45 PM EDT
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Special correspondent for education John Merrow reports how public schools in Toledo, Ohio, are implementing a unique peer-evaluation program for educators that looks to nurture teachers, but make it easier to remove ineffective ones.
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JIM LEHRER: Now: keeping good teachers and letting go of bad ones.

Nearly four out of five Americans think it should be easier to fire weak teachers. But more than half think teachers are not paid enough. That’s according to a new poll by the Associated Press and Stanford University.

The NewsHour’s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, profiles an Ohio school system with a unique way of reviewing teachers.

JOHN MERROW: In most public schools, it’s extremely difficult to fire a bad teacher. Unions are often blamed for this. But, here in Toledo, things seem to be different.

To protect the privacy of some individuals, we have concealed their names.

MAN: The next person I will present is …

JOHN MERROW: Mike Johnson and a handful of experienced educators have been mentoring rookie teachers for the past year, and now must present their recommendations to this panel. Should Toledo renew their contracts or let them go?

MAN: She doesn’t engage with students when teaching the lesson. Uncooperative behavior was prevalent, and directions stated by the teacher often go unheard for followed.

JOHN MERROW: The panel, comprised of five teachers and four administrators, will vote on Mike’s recommendation.

WOMAN: Does she have support from the administration when she refers a student out of class?

MAN: She does. We have discussed this before.

JOHN MERROW: The process is part of a larger program called PAR, or peer assistance and review. It’ a system in which teachers have the power to evaluate each other.

WOMAN: The recommendation is non-renewal of contract and no further employment with Toledo Public Schools. All those in favor of the recommendation, please raise your hand.

JOHN MERROW: A first-year teacher has just lost her job.

WOMAN: Thank you.

JOHN MERROW: The process that leads up to this final vote begins in the fall. That’s when veteran teachers like Peg McAfee begin mentoring as many as a dozen first-year teachers.

One of her assignments this year is William Hofland (ph), a science teacher.

MAN: Does anyone know one of those characteristics? How about egg-laying? Most reptiles lay what kind of eggs?

PEG MCAFEE, Toledo Public Schools: I make it clear from the beginning I’m a support system for him. I am his evaluator, but my job, especially for my career technology people, is to teach them how to be teachers.

JOHN MERROW: She will work with Hofland and her other teachers once a week, and then present her recommendations to the panel in the spring.

So, it’s not gotcha?

PEG MCAFEE: No. It’s not a gotcha, walking in and caught you doing something bad. From my personality, it’s more I caught you doing something good, and we are building upon the good things that you’re doing, and then working on the things that I think you can strengthen.

JOHN MERROW: Husband-and-wife team Dal and Francine Lawrence, who have been leading the local teachers union for almost half-a-century, are strong supporters of the program. Back in the 1970s, when Dal was union president, he felt the traditional system, in which principals evaluated teachers, was flawed.

DAL LAWRENCE, former president, Toledo Federation of Teachers: The old system, the “top-down, I’m the boss and you’re not” kind of stuff, that produces natural byproducts like distrust, lack of responsibility, and lack of accountability.

JOHN MERROW: He proposed peer assistance and review as an alternative. All first-year teachers would be coached, and those who were ineffective would be fired.

The Toledo plan, a radical departure from the norm, was approved by the Toledo School Board in 1981.

DAL LAWRENCE: I was just trying to look at medicine, how you become a doctor and how you become a teacher, and realizing that we were just so casual about the process. No wonder we were not respected.

JOHN MERROW: The plan does seem to be working. On average, for nearly 30 years, about 8 percent of first-year teachers have been weeded out. Moreover, those who stay have had the benefit of a year of coaching.

JOHN MERROW: Sarah Kirkbride-Hurley went through the mentorship program four years ago.

SARAH KIRKBRIDE-HURLEY, Toledo Public Schools: It was nice to have my own person sort of to come in and answer my questions that spend time with me.

JOHN MERROW: In most school systems, first-year teachers are simply left on their own, sink or swim, but not in Toledo.

Do you now — if you’re in trouble, are you — would you ask another teacher for — how do I do this?

SARAH KIRKBRIDE-HURLEY: Oh, yes. I believe is not reinventing the wheel. So, if somebody else did it really well, you should help me figure out how to do it really well, too.

JOHN MERROW: Francine Lawrence thinks peer assistance and review helps, not only their teachers, but also the profession as a whole.

FRANCINE LAWRENCE, president, Toledo Federation of Teachers: It’s teachers taking ownership for standards and enforcement, and feeling that sense of community, which is what a real profession is all about.

And when teachers are excluded from that or excluded from real influence over curriculum and instruction and school policy, then it’s so easy to say, well, you know, it’s the principal’s problem.

JOHN MERROW: PAR clearly benefits brand-new teachers, but the program is also supposed to retrain or remove ineffective veterans.

Here at Bowsher High School, Peg McAfee and principal Larry Black are meeting to discuss a tenured teacher who has been reported to be ineffective.

LARRY BLACK, principal, Bowsher High School: In the one class that I have observed, the students were kind of left on their own. They weren’t given any direction. There didn’t seem to be a lot of student engagement with — from the teacher’s side.

JOHN MERROW: McAfee is going to be working with this veteran teacher for a year. He’s been placed in what’s called intervention.

So, intervention is a kind of training or a rehab, or what…

LARRY BLACK: Well, it’s — we like to think of it as a way to help people step back up their game. But, if they don’t, the other option is, yes, they will be looked at for termination.

JOHN MERROW: Sounds good, but very few tenured teachers actually get looked at, and even fewer get fired. Toledo has about 2,000 teachers. Over the last six years, just 22 veterans have been placed in intervention, and only 15 have been fired. That’s not even three a year, just two-tenths of 1 percent.

We got together with a group of parents, who gave us their thoughts on the Toledo plan.

CHRISTINE VARWIG, parent: I love our teachers, but, at the same time, there’s a few that need to be reevaluated. And that’s where the school district, A., doesn’t have the means or the time, and the teachers’ plan doesn’t affect that.

JOHN MERROW: Most said the plan wasn’t working, not when it came to dealing with bad teachers who have tenure.

TERRY GLAZER, parent: All of us have had experiences where there has been a teacher identified in a school that even other teachers know need to be removed, but they continue to serve in the school system.

JOHN MERROW: Others felt the Toledo plan has given teachers and the union too much power.

MARCUS SMITH, parent: It seems like we have a system that’s built on self-policing.

JOHN MERROW: And that doesn’t work?

MARCUS SMITH: And, no, I don’t think that works. I don’t think that works in any system.

DAL LAWRENCE: See, we now have intervention.

JOHN MERROW: The Lawrences disagree. They maintain that most bad teachers are fired after their first year, and those who struggle later on are given help.

FRANCINE LAWRENCE: Plus, we have robust professional development. We have peer coaches in classrooms throughout the district. So, there’s a lot of support to advance teachers’ practice.

JOHN MERROW: These supports and mentoring the new teachers can be expensive, anywhere between a few hundred thousand dollars to over a million dollars a year, depending on how many new teachers have been hired.

Although peer assistance and review has a 30-year track record here, fewer than 100 other school districts out of 14,000 nationwide have followed Toledo’s lead. Dal Lawrence believes that the two big national unions, the NEA and the AFT, would rather fight with management than collaborate.

DAL LAWRENCE: There are people who don’t want this stuff to succeed. They’re afraid of the new workplace culture that’s evolving. They’re scared to death about it.

JOHN MERROW: Why?

DAL LAWRENCE: They’re afraid that the union won’t be strong if we’re working together with management.

JOHN MERROW: Does the Toledo plan, which nurtures teachers, improve the academic performance of students? After all, that’s the bottom line. Here again, results are mixed.

Toledo’s test scores are generally better than those in Ohio’s seven other large cities, but they lag behind the rest of the state in all subjects and all grades.