Peer Reviewed, Or If Rick Kahlenberg Had A Nuclear Bomb…

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.

See also ES’ Elena Silva on the same at Q & E.

13 Replies to “Peer Reviewed, Or If Rick Kahlenberg Had A Nuclear Bomb…”

  1. That piece is a tantalizing little morsel, and Kahlenberg has managed to wrap up into it three separate issues: hiring, granting tenure, and dismissal.

    IMHO, the real opportunity comes at the tenure stage. It’s not a panacea, but a *stakeholder* review process after the third year for new teachers or the second year for experienced teachers new to the school, would go a long way to ensuring that the right people were teaching in the right places. Why not make tenure in schools challenging to obtain and meaningful to hold?

  2. I agree that tenure should be challenging to obtain and meaningful to hold. But after 30+ years of having it signify little more than drawing breath, I’m loath to rate my fellow teachers. It’s not my fault someone hired people who speak no discernible language, who don’t bathe, who see the gym class as a singles meet, who can’t focus because they’re mail-order spouses have fooled them for green cards the third time in a row, or whatever.

    The fact is the interview process for teachers ought to be more rigorous than that at Burger King, where they actually don’t hire you if you talk to yourself, drool while thinking, or forget to wear your clothes.

    And until they do that, don’t lay this mess on me.

  3. NYC Educator:

    I agree that agree that a lot of quality control enters in at the hiring point of the process. However, I’ve been involved in the hiring of enough teachers to believe that it isn’t useful for much beyond weeding out the obvious nonstarters
    (something that seems to not be happening where you teach). I’ve yet to encounter a hiring process model that is effective as a predictor of good fit.

    I’d like applicants and new-hires to know that they might get 1, 2, or 3 years out of us, but in that time they’d better do something to distinguish themselves or otherwise be prepared to move on.

    I haven’t seen many people shine in their first three years in a school, then just rest on their laurels. It’s possible, and I guess I’m willing to take a chance on someone doing that, because what I have seen consistently is that people who *don’t* distinguish themselves in the first three years *never* do. I’ve yet to see the road to Demascus moment when a mediocre veteran teacher wakes up and decides to be a superstar.

  4. Jon,

    I agree with you completely, and I think a more reasonable tenure process takes place in the suburb where I live. For example, they do not hire those who are obviously insane, which I think is a good policy.

    We can do better, but in a place like NYC where there’s a well-entrenched culture of dysfunction, you have to address the dysfunction head on. Now that can be done.

    But the powers that be in NYC have thus far opted for cheap PR rather than worthwhile change.

  5. “They do not hire those who are obviously insane, which I think is a good policy.”


    Beer, wine, or G&T? You pick, I’ll buy, and we’ll get it all sorted.

  6. > why is the solution always dismissal? There are other ways to help struggling teachers.

    Right now the solution is almost never dismissal even when it’s thoroughly warranted. I think there’s lots of room between almost never firing anyone no matter the circumstances to firing on a whim.

  7. Burger King may not hire obviously insane people, but I’ve seen one or two at the Taco Bell recently who were clearly thinking far, far outside the bun.

  8. Our administration gave a presentation on its tenure-granting process at a school board meeting last week.

    We learned that over 50% of teachers being hired have had no experience at all. The rest have had less than 5 years’ experience.

    Per pupil funding: $22,000/year.

    Our experienced teachers are retiring in droves, and the district intends to replace them with novices. I know of one case in which the high school flatly refused even to interview a middle-aged teacher of math and physics who came to us with stellar recommendations.

    The administration’s stated objective is to give tenure to everyone.

    “Our goal isn’t to fire new teachers,” or words to that effect.

    New teachers who aren’t especially effective are extensively “mentored” and “supported.” Then they are given tenure, apparently on the basis of having had so much mentoring and support.

    No measures of student achievement are included in tenure discussions, and student evaluations cannot be considered as per union contract.

    The district appears to be using the same “inputs” model they use with our kids.

    If your child has “taken” pre-algebra, then he knows pre-algebra and is ready to “take” algebra.

    If a novice teacher has been mentored, then she knows how to teach and can be given tenure.

    Huge quantities of teacher mentoring are going on. Hours and hours of administrative time and energy are going into mentoring and support; many thousands of dollars are being paid to professional development vendors as well as to our two new full-time teaching-learning facilitators who’ve been hired to mentor the teachers. We are a learning community!

    The feeling one takes away from all this is that the real students are the teachers. They are all very young; the schools look like a college campus. Our middle-aged administrators are emotionally and professionally invested in these young people, and they work hard to help them succeed.

    Meanwhile the actual students, our children, are expected to “seek extra help.” If our children don’t seek extra help, well, then, there’s nothing the school can do. There is certainly no talk of mentoring. For the kids, it’s sink or swim.

    From time to time the administration is forced to let someone go, an action that is taken only after long deliberation and with feelings of regret. That very evening, in fact, the administration and the board had met in executive session to discuss the case of a “borderline” tenure case.

    From a parent’s point of view, of course, “borderline” means there’s nothing to discuss. After all, we are paying some of the highest salaries in the country. But parents’ point of view is neither here nor there, and the district routinely tenures teachers parents oppose.

    The tenure committee is comprised of other teachers.

  9. I agree that peer review is complicated.

    But, it’s unfair to say that teachers have to be subjected to a higher bar than, let’s say, lawyers, and that we need to be harder on ourselves (or more willing to undergo peer review) because we can “really hurt a students chances.”

    Incompetent but still working lawyers play with life and death issues all the time. Nothing is more hurtful than an innocent person doing time or sitting on death row for incompetence. Bus drivers, nurses, bridge builders, teachers, judges, any of the professions that care for, transport, monitor, or house people have degrees of competence in the ranks.

    Never say that we are pretending the problem doesn’t exist, because it’s not the case. We need to find ways to prune the people who damage other people, but still recognize that the humans are a very mixed bag. There will never be a perfect formula for pruning the ranks — especially when inherent in all such systems are friendships, liaisons, loyalties, bargaining, maneuvering for self-preservation and self-advancement.

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