Cincinnati swears by peer review, backs off tying results to pay

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Jennifer Kelly and Joyce Yonka

photo by Matt Borgerding

Jennifer Kelly and Joyce Yonka

“Have a seat, have a seat,” says Jennifer Kelly to students shuffling in the door of her mid-morning English class at Aiken Service Learning High School, in a working-class section of Cincinnati.

“He just hit me,” a sullen girl gripes to Kelly of the boy just behind her.

“No,” says the boy, “she hit me.” The young man uses two fingers to widen his supposedly wounded left eye and presents it to Kelly.

The truth be told, no one hit anyone. The two students are giving Kelly a hard time, something the young teacher has to contend with all the way through the double period ahead of her. To make matters worse, Kelly’s consulting teacher, a colleague assigned to observe and counsel her, chooses this day to make one of her unannounced visits. For 45 minutes, Joyce Yonka, a veteran high school English teacher, takes copious notes.

Yonka is one of some 20 consulting teachers and teacher-evaluators who make up the peer review corps in this struggling district of 40,000, where only 60 percent of students graduate from high school.

Cincinnati was a peer review pioneer, adopting the method in 1985. Then in the late 1990s, the school board and teachers union tried to go even further, crafting more specific teaching standards and attempting to link evaluation on those standards to higher pay. While the pay-for-performance plan was sidelined, the practice of teachers judging teachers holds firm.

“We’re a profession,” says Sue Taylor, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, “and there’s a deep philosophical belief that teachers themselves should be gatekeepers to the profession.”

As Jennifer Kelly’s students take their seat, some hip-hop poetry is playing from a boom box. The teacher, a slight woman wearing large loop earrings, attended a local book festival over the weekend, and the tape is courtesy of a poet she met at the event. “He has his own radio show,” she bursts.

Kelly suggests that the students set up a booth at an upcoming community fair and sell their own poems and songs. The discussion veers off into books Kelly encountered at the fair, the identity of onetime Cincinnati resident Harriet Beecher Stowe—”Wasn’t she a slave or somethin’?” a boy asks of the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” author—and returns to the poet on the boom box. A boy named Chris points out that the poet’s work doesn’t rhyme. “It doesn’t have to rhyme,” says Kelly. “There are plenty of poems in history that haven’t rhymed. You need to be open to different types of writing.”

Throughout, Kelly is fighting the talking, note-passing and general indifference among the students. In a stab at controlling the situation, she writes the names of the disruptors on the blackboard—three mentions will bring detention, she warns. Soon, the list has grown impossibly long. The unruliness mounts even more after Kelly hands out self-assessments in writing and reading that the students are to complete.

A few fill out the forms; others watch Dujuan, a lanky young man, as he stands on a desk and fiddles with a yellow window shade.

When Yonka takes her leave, she does so with a firm opinion. “There was no teaching going on,” she says of Kelly, who though new to the Cincinnati schools, has a master’s degree in education and has taught in the suburbs. “The stuff about the books was great, but it didn’t connect to what the kids were reading. The only teachable moment had to do with the poem that didn’t rhyme. But that was brief.

“Jennifer had no control of the kids,” she continues, “so however well-done her lesson plan might have been, it didn’t do any good because no one was listening.”

In the week ahead, Yonka will sit down with Kelly and go over her leadership of the class in detail, showing how it squared with Cincinnati’s standards. For her part, Kelly will furnish a written reflection on Yonka’s visit. She must also submit to another five observations, attend biweekly after-school sessions conducted by Yonka, and produce a portfolio of material that includes a lesson plan spread over several days, samples of student work and ways she has communicated with parents.

In the end, Kelly must earn repeated scores of at least two (basic level) on a four-point scale in order to advance in her career. “She’ll get her two’s,” predicts Yonka, “but she won’t get higher, at least this year.”

Cincinnati followed the lead of Toledo, Ohio, and Rochester, N.Y., in establishing peer-evaluation. But it broke out on its own with a pay-for-performance component that was introduced in 2000. “The eyes of the nation are upon us,” Superintendent Steven Adamowski said at the time. “We can’t afford to let this fail.”

But fail it did, at least in part. Previously, new teachers, fifth-year veterans and those in trouble were evaluated. Under the 2000 plan, teachers at certain benchmark years beyond 5 were also put under review. Plus, teachers were subjected to more detailed standards based on those of Charlotte Danielson, a consultant affiliated with the Educational Testing Service. “Teachers were driving themselves nuts, getting up at four o’clock in the morning to be judged well,” recalls Rick Beck, then the union president. “Many were on edge emotionally.”

As a result of what one observer calls “chaos,” the number of target groups was scaled back. The extra-pay aspect of assessment hadn’t kicked in yet, but already teachers viewed it with considerable hostility.

“People thought that however refined the instrument, peer evaluation was subjective,” says Sue Taylor, a social studies teacher who was then on the union’s collective-bargaining team.

In April 2001 Taylor, running on a platform opposed to pay for performance, toppled incumbent Rick Beck, who was wed to the concept. A year later, teachers overwhelmingly voted down the pay component, handing Adamowski a bitter defeat. “Our students deserve more than a ‘no,'” Adamowski said at the time. “I hope the community will join all of us who are committed to professionalism in teaching—teachers included—in demanding a constructive proposal.”

However, the added pay issue seems dead for the time being. Adamowski resigned in October 2002 to become an education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Alton Frailey, Adamowski’s successor, was unavailable to be interviewed for this story. So far, he has been silent on the subject.

Yonka oversees the assessment of 16 new teachers. She feels some are already in sterling condition, such as a young woman whom Yonka recently saw take a class of girls through a discussion of John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl” and was “sharp as a tack.” At the other end of the spectrum is a career-changing man at a middle school. “The guy doesn’t have any with-it-ness,” she says. “Oh, he knows some things, but he’s stuck in the ’70s. And he’s so disorganized.”

Still, she feels she can ultimately assist everyone in her caseload and that peer evaluation is “unbelievably useful. The learning that goes on among the teachers who are under review is terrific.”

For her part, Jennifer Kelly feels sustained. “I have my shortcomings, and I appreciate the feedback that Joyce is giving me,” says the teacher, even on a day when she has received a bracing report from Yonka.

Other observers are likewise enthusiastic. “Now teachers know what the expectations are,” remarks Carolyn Turner, executive director of Cincinnati Parents for Public Schools, an advocacy group.

As to the weeding out of brown grass, of some 320 teachers who came under scrutiny last year (out of a total of some 3,000 teachers), 11 were recommended for termination, and only four of those lost their jobs.

Despite promising results, some observers believe the program visits too much pressure on beginning teachers, who have plenty to do acclimating to new careers, schools and colleagues.

The most onerous requirement, many complain, is the preparation of teacher portfolios. “We have some teachers spending 75 to 100 hours on those portfolios,” says Taylor. “To expect that level of rigor, that level of comprehensiveness is a mistake.” But Susan Hiles-Meadows, who administers the program, says the burden of the portfolio is overstated: “You fill out some forms, and you have to write legibly. That’s all. These are things you should be doing anyway.”

Taylor says that in upcoming contract negotiations, the union will try to push the evaluation of new teachers back to the second or third year of service.

Meanwhile, beginning in the 2005-06 school year, schools are supposed to reintroduce a more frequent form of evaluation. How frequent will be negotiated with the union, says Hiles-Meadows.

“But whatever happens,” says Taylor, “this is going to strengthen the teaching and learning of our students. I’m sure of that.”

Grant Pick is a Chicago-based writer