Unions winkle out below-par teachers

18th October 1996 at 01:00
United States

Tim Cornwell reports on an unusual approach to raising teaching standards. Teachers' unions in a handful of American school districts have joined in the attempt to identify, work with, and where necessary weed out substandard teachers.

These union-negotiated peer review programmes, in which union members have in effect acquiesced in the firings or resignations of dozens of teachers, are still rare. In only five urban districts - three in the conservative mid-western state of Ohio - are union branches known to be involved.

But the programmes were held up in a recent report as a model for raising national teaching standards. Supporters say they put the lie to political attacks, notably by Republican candidate Bob Dole, that paint unions as powerful defenders of the status quo in the face of falling education standards.

"Traditionally, unions have been in a mode of fighting the administration, fighting for their employees. Now it is a different mindset. We have to take responsibility for our own," said Denise Hewitt, with the Cincinatti, Ohio Federation of Teachers, where the union negotiated one of the first peer review agreements 10 years ago.

In Cincinatti, a major mid-western city with 50,000 plus pupils, all teachers newly hired by the district, even where they have substantial teaching experience elsewhere, enter the Peer Assistance and Evaluation Program for a year.

Veteran teachers can volunteer to join or may be referred to PAEP for investigation by a principal who believes they are seriously underperforming. About a third of these cases end with the teacher leaving the profession.

The key to the system are "consulting teachers", experienced and highly-rated staff who evaluate classroom performance, typically over a year, even as they work with the teacher to improve it. They report to a joint panel of teachers and school administrators, and make key recommendations on termination or other action.

In Seattle, the burgeoning port city on America's north-west coast, the Staff Training, Assistance and Review (STAR) program was adopted three years ago, under agreement with the local board of education, the district administration, and the union members of the Seattle Education Association.

STAR was adopted after 80 per cent of Seattle's 3,000 teachers backed reforms to improve the quality of the teaching, said Roger Erskine, the SEA executive director.

He said there was a wide consensus that instead of protecting people in trouble, they should get in at the front end and try to help them. Annual reviews since then show teachers, principals and administrators remain enthusiastic.

The SEA is a local branch of the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union, while the Cincinatti teachers are affiliated with the second largest, the American Federation of Teachers. The other school districts involved are the cities of Columbus and Toledo, in Ohio, and Rochester, in New York state.

The main effort in Seattle is directed at new teachers. "We were losing a lot of people, because they came in from college, and were not ready to deal with urban children or the tensions in an urban setting, so they would leave, " said Mr Erskine.

Now their consulting teachers provide classroom assistance and work on building instructional plans, then grade performance after a year. Far fewer leave the profession early, he said.

At the same time, about 150 struggling teachers already in the system have gone into the STAR programme, most but not all voluntarily, he said. Over the past three years, about 20 were terminated after their performance was rated less than satisfactory.

"There is a perception that teachers' unions protect bad teachers. That has never been the case," said Mr Erskine. "We are trying to promote the positive aspects."

Peer review programmes were singled out for approval in a recent report from the bipartisan National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, endorsed by top union leaders. It said: "Although many claim that it is impossible to truly evaluate teachers or get rid of those who are incompetent, a growing number of districts are transforming old, nonfunctional systems of teacher evaluation."

In Cincinatti Ms Hewitt, with 23 years in teaching and 10 as a union official, has also served as a consulting teacher. She cited the case of one elementary school teacher with a doctorate in education, who had taught at the college level, but did not master basics such as learning children's names.

"She was not preparing lessons. She was not managing their behaviour. She did a lot of busy things, but they were not tied to what they were doing. She had a certificate in elementary education, but her first love was college," Ms Hewitt said. Though the teacher survived two years, she eventually resigned.

The programmes have reduced law suits and the use of grievance procedures because the road to termination is much less arbitrary. It involves prolonged observation by a colleague, usually in the same discipline, rather than haphazard classroom inspections. But consulting teachers, figures show, actually grade colleagues more critically than administrators typically do.

It is not without political cost for union leaders. In Cincinatti, grass-roots discomfort with reforms, including peer review, was blamed for nearly toppling CFT president Tom Mooney in an election back in 1994.

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