Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Modest Proposal: Peer Review as One Component of Evaluation for Teachers

*I originally wrote about this as a comment on the Core Knowledge blog, one of those blogs you should be reading if you're not already.

One of the biggest complaints about teachers is tenure, folks, right? "Lifetime job security." "You can't get rid of the bad ones." This is a small beef of mine. On one hand, some of the detractors are at least kind of right--it can take a long time to fire even a patently, obviously terrible teacher, by which I chiefly mean a teacher who poses a physical and/or sexual danger to children. That person can be removed from the classroom quickly--hola, rubber rooms!--but actually fired, yes, that can take a long time. And that's crazy. Be assured that no one here is an apologist for people who hurt children.

But I would like to defend the idea of tenure despite its faults. Tenure is supposed to mean, above all, academic and intellectual freedom. This should mean that teachers are free to speak truth to power, to defend unpopular ideas, to elevate the pursuit of knowledge above all else. Sometimes I have to remind myself that that is my actual job, but, you know, I guess it still is, even these days. This should mean that teachers are protected against firing because, for example, they hate TCRWP (not that I am referring to myself here or anything) or Everyday Math. This should mean that if a teacher wants to do something unpopular or out-of-fashion that is nevertheless effective for him/her and his/her students, he or she should be able to do that without fear of losing the job. Since people always want to compare teachers to doctors and lawyers, imagine that a fancy new drug has come along that lowers fevers. It seems like a pretty good drug, but it's $50/dose. A doctor wants to continue to prescribe Tylenol because it's 5 bucks a bottle and does the same job. But the doctor's bosses think the $50/dose drug is better, so they fire the doctor. If that doctor had tenure, he or she wouldn't have been fired. That, to me, is how tenure should work.

Tenure should not mean that if you are bad at your job, you should stick around anyway, just 'cause it's too much of a hassle to fire you. A lot of people think that's what it means. Maybe, in some cases, that is what it means. But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let's think of some constructive ways that we can keep tenure in its purest form--as a crucial protection for otherwise good teachers who are simply on the "wrong" (read: unpopular) side of certain issues--and prevent it from protecting those who maybe should find another line of work.

First, tenure should not be automatically granted. Detractors will point to statistics suggesting that in NYC, I believe 97% of probationers are granted tenure. Well, if we go with Norm's estimates, that still means that some lousy teachers get tenure. To me, this is the fault of lazy administrators and should not be blamed on the other, hard-working teachers out there, but whatever--there you have it. A more rigorous evaluation system for probationers and tenured teachers would help this system, but primarily for probationers. You want to extend the probationary period? Do it. A good teacher is only going to be better after four or five years. I think that's pretty reasonable.

Second, maybe we need a more rigorous evaluation system for teachers. I have quite a few ideas on this (CONSULTING FIRMS: I CAN HAZ GREAT BIG PAYCHECK?), but the one I want to focus on today is the idea of peer review. Peer review can be part of a more rigorous evaulation system. But it has its pitfalls too, right? I mean, imagine a teacher who's being a thorn in the side of a faculty that has, for the most part, chosen to roll over and play dead for their administration. Peer review? For this teacher? Forget it. He or she could be Frank McCourt (not that HE'D last long in BloomKlein's DOE, but never mind) and still get a lousy review. No, we need a better way. Here it is: JURY DUTY!

What? Jury duty? Yes. You get called for jury duty, right? Your principal HAS to let you leave work for the day and go on down to the courthouse, and unless you can wiggle your way out of it, you spend a day or two hearing a case and rendering a verdict. Peer review for teachers could work the same way. A pool would be formed across a reasonable geographic area--in NYC, it could be district-wide or maybe borough-wide. This pool would be comprised of a good assortment of teachers--let's say each school would be mandated to provide a certain number based on their size, chosen by SLT or maybe by a chapter election. Then, out of that pool, teachers would be pulled, at random, for a day or two here and there, or maybe a week at a time, to observe teachers they don't know in other schools. (For those of you who are appalled at the idea of teachers being out of the classroom for this long, to you I say: Please figure out a way to have me not have to go and grade the state ELA exam for a week ever again, either.)

For schools with overburdened admins, this is a blessing. Teachers could be observed more often. And for teachers, I don't see how this isn't a win. You're being observed by someone who is much more in touch with day-to-day reality in the classroom. You're probably more likely to accept constructive criticism from a peer and, conversely, praise means more from a peer as well. And for those who go on "jury duty," they get the benefit of "intervisitation" with their class covered for a whole day--they can see what other teachers are doing well and identify good points they can take back to their own practice.

This could be part of a more rigorous evaluation process for teachers. Part. But what about other stuff? Like administrative observations and test scores and student evaluations and parent evaluations and committees of other peers in one's own school? Mmmmmm...I smell a series...