Here’s a question for teachers: Would it be helpful to have another teacher with knowledge in your subject area evaluate your practice?
And what if that peer review counted toward your formal performance evaluation?
Those are some of the questions that the nonprofit group Teach Plus, which supports teachers who want to become involved in education policy, asked about 375 Chicago educators in a short survey earlier this year.
The survey found that the vast majority of teachers think peer review would be helpful or very helpful. But slightly less than half would be open to having their peers weigh in on formal job evaluations.
Still, says Teach Plus Executive Director Josh Kaufmann, “If almost half of teachers in Chicago are open to considering it, then it might be worth piloting it in some select group of schools to test it and see how it works.”
In a short report released last week, Kaufmann’s group suggests the district and Chicago Teachers Union consider implementing a structure for either peer feedback that’s not part of their evaluation–or peer review that would count toward teachers’ ratings under the current REACH Students evaluation system.
The recommendations come as contract negotiations begin to heat up between CTU and the school district. But while the CTU is asking for some changes to the current evaluation system, implementing peer review is not one of their proposals, says Jennifer Johnson, the union’s special projects facilitator for teacher evaluations.
Johnson says she and others at the CTU have previously met with the Teach Plus fellows behind the survey to discuss peer evaluations, an idea that initially made it into the union’s draft contract proposals. But the proposal then was then shot down by the House of Delegates.
“While we think peer review would be great like a support system, I’m not sure we’re ready to halt all the gears and shift really radically to a peer review system for stakes,” says Johnson. “It’s partly because when CPS tends to implement something new and big, they tend not to do it well. They tend to rush things, tend not to have [those involved] fully prepared or have the right training.”
In a statement, CPS said it is “always willing to evaluate and consider ideas that may offer improvement to our current practices. Peer evaluators may be able to offer benefits, but they also come at an additional cost, and the District has well-known financial challenges.”
Some issues related to the evaluation system that the CTU is taking to negotiation sessions include beefing up the documentation process so accurate data is collected, increasing supports for special education and bilingual educators and clinicians, and ensuring that teachers get their ratings more quickly “so they have time to make changes in the following school year.”
Many teachers complained last year because they didn’t get their 2013-2014 ratings until a month after observations had already begun for the 2014-2015 school year.
Not a new idea
Peer review isn’t a new idea in Chicago. Both the CTU and the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association say they brought up the possibility during the statewide negotiations that led to the 2010 passage of the Performance Evaluation Reform Act, which required student achievement on standardized tests to be among the indicators used to rate teachers and principals.
“We were thinking that maybe teachers could be more helpful to other teachers,” says Clarice Berry, president of the principals group. “I didn’t think principals would have much trouble with peer review or coaches. But CPS rejected it out of hand.”
The Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago’s Students (REACH Students) system – under which all teachers at CPS-run schools are now being evaluated – has been a source of stress and anxiety for principals and teachers.
Principals don’t always have the time to provide deep, helpful feedback, Berry says. “It’s not that they can’t do it, or don’t want to do it, but it’s not in synch with what else is going on in schools,” she says. Principals might have more time “if they weren’t chasing custodians down, if there weren’t fights to break up, if they didn’t have all these other things going on like all this testing.”
Last fall, the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research issued a report based on thousands of surveys of principals’ and teachers’ opinions on REACH. Overall, the report concluded, teachers and principals are optimistic about the system’s potential to improve practice, although teachers were less enthusiastic by the second year of the program. CPS is now in Year 3.
Educators are also more stressed out. Nearly four out of five teachers said the new system has increased their stress and anxiety levels, with the majority saying the process takes more effort than it’s worth.
Despite the added stress, the Consortium found that most teachers think the REACH observation process provides useful feedback, encourages reflection and guides their professional development. “Almost 90 percent of teachers said the feedback provided in their conferences included specific suggestions and guidance on how to improve,” according to the report.
The Teach Plus survey – which was done on a much smaller scale and only with educators on the group’s list-serve –found different impressions of the evaluation system. Just 38 percent of teachers thought their current evaluation system was effective or very effective at providing “meaningful” feedback to improve their practice; the same percentage thought it ineffective or very ineffective.
The rest thought it was neither effective or ineffective.
(It’s worth noting that about 15 percent of those included in the Teach Plus survey were charter school teachers, who are evaluated under separate systems. Kaufmann says that the results barely changed when those teachers were taken out of the denominator.)
CPS officials questioned the methodology of the Teach Plus survey, pointing back to the Consortium research that found more positive impressions of REACH.
“Overall, the support for REACH remains strong,” said a CPS spokesperson in a statement.
Jennie Jiang, one of the lead authors of the Consortium report, says different samples, wording on questions and timing of the surveys could all have an impact on the results.
Jiang commended the active teachers involved in producing the Teach Plus survey and report for “getting teachers’ voices involved in the policy arena. It’s a really important voice that sometimes gets missed.”
A former teacher herself, Jiang says she likes the idea of informal peer observations, but thinks there would be “a lot of logistical challenges” to getting a system into place.”
“If we want to get quality feedback, we have to think about how many peer observers you would have, how much would it cost to train them and to train them really well,” she says.