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Supporting teachers through peer review and assistance

Opponents of tenure for educators in our public schools will suggest that tenure means a "job for life." Such an assertion is inaccurate. Tenure means educators are entitled to due process and are not "at will" employees. Currently, this issue has returned to the public debate, as interested observers discuss the recent appeals court decision regarding teacher tenure in the case of Vergara v. State of California. How can the due process rights of educators be protected while also striving for highly trained and effective teachers in every classroom? The answer resides in a unique Montgomery County partnership between teachers, principals and the school board.

The Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program is administered by a joint panel of eight teachers recommended by the Montgomery County Education Association (the local teachers' union) and eight principals recommended by the local principals' association. This panel decides which teachers stay in the classroom and which teachers are no longer serving the students of Montgomery County. I have had the honor of serving on the PAR panel for the last five years. This service has been the most significant and collaborative experience of my 22 years as a teacher.

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As a high school social studies teacher, I interact with about 125 students daily. During the monthly PAR panel meetings, I and the 15 other panel members review cases and make decisions that affect thousands of students. (Teachers and principals on the PAR panel each have an equal number of votes.) Our goal is always to provide the support that developing teachers need while also protecting the interests of children when a teacher refuses to be reflective and coachable. Unfortunately, I have raised my hand many times to dismiss a teacher I would not want teaching my own children. The principals on the PAR panel have been willing to support teachers when other principals have not provided adequate training or been unfair to a teacher in another way. The equal power of teachers and principals makes the group more cohesive and accountable to each other as they debate who should be teaching our children.

This PAR process proves effective because there is a system of checks and balances. If a principal believes that a tenured teacher is underperforming, the principal can collect data and evaluate the teacher as such. At this point, a "consulting teacher" would be summoned to collect independent data. Consulting teachers are identified "master teachers" who leave the classroom for three years to observe, coach and evaluate underperforming and novice teachers. If the consulting teacher agrees with the principal's assessment, the teacher will be placed in the peer assistance and review program, where that teacher will receive intensive support for at least one school year. After a year of intensive support, the PAR panel will decide if that teacher has improved enough to continue employment. If the consulting teacher disagrees with the principal, the PAR panel will have to decide whether the teacher should be identified as an underperformer.

Having separate and independent evaluators provides the PAR panel convincing evidence that a teacher is in need of assistance or that a principal is misguided, which solidifies the partnership between teachers and principals and upholds the integrity of the process. These independent sources also provide the credibility that allows all stakeholders to buy into the process. The goal is not to weed out bad teachers but to provide intensive support to novice instructors so that high standards can be established and teacher turnover can be reduced. In schools impacted by poverty, the problem is not getting rid of rotten apples but convincing the good teachers to stay.

The Peer Assistance and Review approach should be a national model that is promoted and supported by the United States Department of Education. When we support our teachers we are truly supporting the children they teach.

Brian Donlon is a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) who teaches at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md.; his email is donlonbr@yahoo.com.

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