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Tuesday, February 1, 2000

Teachers Evaluating Teachers: Peer Review and the New Unionism by Myron Lieberman

Peer Review of Teachers Offers Only the Appearance of Reform

Transaction Publishers • 1998 • 137 pages • $19.95 paperback

After decades of denial, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) finally concede that maybe their organizations have been an impediment to K-12 education reforms that seek to ensure classrooms are populated with only qualified and capable educators. Their solution? “Don’t worry; let us handle it.”

NEA and AFT officials, who have in the past fought ferociously to protect the jobs of unqualified or incompetent teachers, are now proposing a “new unionism” that focuses on teacher quality. The keystone to the unions’ new reform agenda is the “peer review” process in which teachers continuously evaluate the performance of their colleagues. In this book Myron Lieberman, a former candidate for president of the AFT, tests whether or not this new unionism truly represents a different direction for organizations that for years have resisted change tooth and nail, or if it instead offers only the appearance of reform.

Peer review is a procedure culminating in decisions about whether to renew contracts of first-year teachers, to grant tenure, or to allow teachers to provide assistance to struggling tenured teachers without any implication for adverse action. In other words, teachers themselves are asked to take collective responsibility for improving the teaching profession.

Although peer review costs schools more than traditional administrator-teacher evaluations, Lieberman argues that this is not necessarily a reason to reject it. “The question,” he writes, “is whether any additional benefits are worth the additional costs.” To answer that, Lieberman examines two peer-review programs in operation in Ohio’s Toledo and Columbus school districts. Toledo began its program in 1981; Columbus implemented a similar plan in 1986. Both programs obliged their districts to hire additional staff and devote significantly more resources to their evaluation processes than previously required by traditional evaluations.

Are the programs working? In Lieberman’s words, “it is highly unlikely that peer review [is] more effective than conventional procedures in weeding out unqualified teachers.” Over an 11-year period, 95 percent of first-year teachers in Columbus were recommended for re-employment. During this same period, 178 tenured teachers were identified as ineffectual and in need of assistance, but only two teachers were terminated. The obvious question arises: Did the peer-review process actually improve the teaching of 176 teachers in the district? Lieberman concludes that there is no way to measure whether this has been more effective in weeding out poor teachers and improving those who were identified as needing assistance. “For all we know,” Lieberman says, “peer review keeps incompetent teachers in the classroom longer than conventional procedures did or would.”

Union officials, of course, have a different perspective on peer review’s effectiveness, claiming that it is the best method by which incompetent teachers can be removed from the classroom. As of early 1998, however, no functioning peer-review plan had any authority to exclude a teacher from teaching in another school district. Therefore, says Lieberman, peer review is at best a procedure to determine whether a teacher will be employed in one particular school district. Instead, he writes, an honest evaluation of these programs “requires recognition of the possibility that peer review may result in a lower quality of instruction” because it can take excellent teachers out of the classroom, where they belong, to serve instead as “consulting teachers” who evaluate other educators.

The success of peer-review programs should be indicated by marked increases in teacher competence, which in turn would lead to gains in student academic performance. But Lieberman finds no evidence that student scores on standardized tests have improved in school districts that have programs in place. In fact, at no time has anyone—including peer review’s strongest supporters—demonstrated that achievement has gone up as a result of such programs.

Lieberman makes a strong case that peer review has little potential for improving education. In fact, the model peer-review programs are not demonstrably better than traditional approaches to reviewing teachers. Lieberman concludes that “Peer review illustrates the point that, for certain union purposes, the belief that educational reform is taking place is more important than the reality.”

Teachers Evaluating Teachers is required reading for those interested in understanding how the teacher unions are attempting to reshape themselves as leaders of the education reform movement. Lieberman’s book demonstrates how peer review and “new unionism” are actually an effort to maintain the status quo.

Matthew Brouillette, a former teacher, is associate director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan.