In the WaPo Rick Kahlenberg continues to channel Al Shanker, this time on peer review for teachers. It’s a good piece and well-worth reading because the peer review idea has merit. I’m a fan of what they’ve built in Toledo. But, too often this stuff gets romanticized. A couple of uncomfortable caveats are too often overlooked in this discussion. Kahlenberg writes that:
In practice, in Toledo and elsewhere, it turns out that teachers are even harder on colleagues than principals are, because a fourth-grade teacher doesn’t want to get stuck with kids who haven’t learned anything in third grade.
That’s true, but it’s a pretty low-bar…What we don’t know is whether teachers are as “hard” as they need to be. In the case of Toledo, for instance, when you compare the number of teachers that have been dismissed through “peer review” to the number of teachers overall since the program’s inception, you have to conclude that Toledo does a much better job on the hiring front than most other districts. It’s a big number in absolute terms, not so much in relative terms and relative to the achievement picture.
But, that actually could be the case, good hiring, less need to dismiss. Problem is, we just don’t know because we’ve never used data to really analyze whether the teachers who get dismissed are indeed lower-performing than their colleagues or just perceived to be. Or (more likely in my view) how many teachers who are similarly ineffective don’t get removed through this system? With value-added data we could figure this out and it’s important to know both to gauge effectiveness and build standards that are genuinely linked with student learning. Often various standards that are agreed upon as being very important turn out not to be nearly as powerful as people wanted to believe. See, for instance, Board, National…
Also, it’s easy to romanticize the willingness of any profession to police its own. Many fields wrestle with and address this tension in different ways, but in education too often we just pretend it doesn’t exist at all. The incentives are often skewed against really being, in Kahlenberg terminology, “hard” about this. Consider that lousy lawyers don’t get disbarred, just some of the actually crooked or genuinely incompetent ones. Yet we know that lousy teachers –especially a few in a row — can really hurt a students chances (pdf) so we need a higher bar than that.
None of this is an absolute argument against peer review. Only an argument for being cognizant that there are not easy answers here.