Cash for review on how staff perform;Briefing International

5th March 1999 at 00:00

Staff appraisal by peer teachers forms the backbone of a new state law in California, reports Tim Cornwell.

California's new governor, Gray Davis, elected on a pledge to cure ills at the state's troubled schools, is controversially proposing to spend $100 million (pound;62.5m) on having teachers' performance reviewed by their colleagues.

The Bill backing peer appraisal for teachers has passed the California assembly's education committee. It would help pay for veteran teachers to assess and advise staff whose superiors are unhappy with their performance.

The proposal is part of a package that ranges from tougher standardised exams to merit awards for top teachers.

But the peer-review element has the less than enthusiastic backing of California teachers' unions - it could be so watered down by their supporters in the legislature that it may have little effect.

Democrat governor Davis was elected last November after a campaign where falling standards in California's schools were the number one issue.

"The time has come to restore California's public schools to greatness," Mr Davis said in his inaugural speech last month. "The voters demand it. Our future depends on it. And I am determined to make it happen."

The peer-review proposal is the backbone of the governor's call for greater accountability for schools' performance. While it would technically be voluntary, school districts could forfeit cost-of-living increases if they don't participate.

Several similar programmes across the country have won praise from teachers and administrators, helping to reinforce the California legislation. They include one in California's Poway Unified School District, though this is used only on new recruits. There, first-year teachers are enrolled in the Poway professional assistance programme. A veteran teacher on assignment as a "teacher consultant" spends at least 40 "contact hours" helping develop the new teacher's skills. The consultant also conducts three formal classroom observations to vet a teacher's performance.

Since 1987, 725 new teachers have passed this vetting process and only 33 were rejected. After that, teachers have one more year of probation, during which they are nominally reviewed by management.

But union leaders and academics are sceptical about borrowing an idea from a district in a well-off suburban area with just 33,000 pupils, and expanding it to a state with five million schoolchildren.

Bruce Fuller, a public-policy and education professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said: "There's not a lot of clear research that it necessarily improves pedagogical skills."

While Poway screens new teachers, the governor's plan proposes that long-time staff could be reviewed by colleagues,a far more sensitive issue.

There are other practical hurdles. California is facing a severe teacher shortage, so cities such as Los Angeles have already hired teachers with only "emergency" credentials.

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