Adam Urbanski

When teachers union president Adam Urbanski sat down at his kitchen table 17 years ago to write a peer review plan for the Rochester, N.Y., school district, he thought he might be on the cutting edge of a new trend.

At the time, Rochester was only the third district in the country, following Toledo and Columbus, to take up peer review. However, the practice never caught on. Today only a handful of school districts have adopted this method of evaluation that calls for teachers to review each other.

Urbanski suspects he knows why. “There is a fear that it will turn teachers against teachers, and lead to massive snitching,” he says. “Peer review seems to be controversial only where it doesn’t exist.”

Elsewhere, teachers are wary that peer review will lead to dissension in the ranks and confusion about the lines of authority between teachers and administrators.

However, Rochester teachers see peer review as an opportunity to have a say in their own fate, says Urbanski. “The program is viewed as cultivating good teaching rather than weeding out bad teaching,” he says.

Teachers who undergo peer review in Rochester fall into one of three categories:

First-year teachers.

Tenured teachers who are performing poorly and are subject to having a mentor teacher oversee their work for 18 months.

Tenured teachers who request professional guidance.

In any given year, as many as 20 mid-career teachers and 600 first-year teachers—out of a total of 3,800 in the system—undergo peer review.

Mentor teachers observe their subjects in the classroom, demonstrate lessons for them, relieve them so they can observe best practices elsewhere, direct them to relevant workshops and courses as well as reading they can do, meet one-on-one to talk over issues that arise and evaluate teachers’ work products.

“They spend substantially more time with the teacher than any supervisor could, and their judgment is valued in a commensurate way,” Urbanski says. “Very often, we see administrators yielding to the judgment of the mentor.”

The Rochester program has produced two significant results: More first-year teachers are fired (up to 12 percent), and fewer teachers who are retained drop out of teaching. Teacher retention in Rochester is over 90 percent, up from 65 percent before peer review began.

Only a few of the tenured teachers who undergo mandatory peer review are ultimately dismissed, he notes. The superintendent has the final say, and teachers have the right to contest that decision in court.

Rochester is unique in requiring mentor teachers to carry a part-time course load. “The single greatest advantage is that they remain connected to the realities of the classroom,” Urbanski says.

But Dal Lawrence, former president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, believes that “top-notch mentoring” requires mentors who do nothing else.

The two national teacher unions diverge on the issue.

The National Education Association, which represents teachers mainly in small districts, is skeptical. “We’re pretty leery about having teachers evaluate other teachers for dismissal purposes,” says Tom Blanford, associate director for teacher quality. “That violates a pretty fundamental belief about collegiality and support.”

By contrast, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), whose members are more likely to work in large urban districts, supports peer review programs because they provide for sharing responsibility for teacher quality with school administrators.

Don Raczka, president of the AFT local in Poway, Calif.—a district north of San Diego that employs 1,600 teachers—says peer review “is an accepted way of doing business” in his district. He suspects money is a major reason peer review hasn’t caught on. Paying mentors to spend most or all of their time outside classrooms “is not an inexpensive commitment of resources,” he comments.

Peer review also takes more time than principal-driven evaluation systems, as participants collaborate to reach consensus on how to proceed, says Rob Weil, AFT’s deputy director of educational issues. “It takes longer when you have more people in the decision circle,” he says. “There’s more buy-in, there’s more ownership of those decisions, but to get to that, it takes more time.”

There’s also the potential for peer review to erupt in controversy. In a recent Toledo case, community members cited discrimination when two African American teachers were dismissed as a result of peer review. Now two black school board members “want to ‘review’ the Toledo plan,” Lawrence says.

“The lesson is that it’s difficult to have a competency system in a … political environment.”

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