Peer evaluation makes debut

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After years of being stuck in neutral in Chicago, the notion that teachers know best how to evaluate and train other teachers is finally taking a toehold in the district.

This fall, the teachers union and the district are piloting a peer mentoring and evaluation program at eight union-run public schools, dubbed “Fresh Start” schools. The 125 new teachers at these schools will take part this year, but tenured teachers who have been given “unsatisfactory” performance ratings will be required to participate next year.

“When we negotiated the Fresh Start agreement, one of the things we wanted was to make schools more viable,” says Marc Wigler, who oversees Fresh Start for the Chicago Teachers Union. “This is something we felt was important to enhance teacher retention and support teachers in their careers.”

The concept of peer evaluation first surfaced in 1993, when a new teachers’ contract called for a joint union-CPS committee to explore ways to improve evaluation, including peer review. The committee went nowhere, and the next contract made no mention of any such committee. The current contract, negotiated in 2003 under the leadership of former CTU President Deborah Lynch, picked up the concept again, but the idea never moved forward. Lynch later lost a heated union election to current President Marilyn Stewart.

The new pilot, however, may become a political football in the upcoming union election, expected to be a rematch between Lynch and Stewart.

New ratings, better teachers

The pilot teacher evaluation program includes a new rubric intended to give teachers a clearer picture of their strengths and weaknesses in the classroom.

The rubric includes 22 skills divided among four categories: Teaching procedures, classroom management, content knowledge and personal characteristics and professional responsibility, such as level of interest in teaching and cooperation with parents and other school staff.

The current evaluation, for both new and tenured teachers, is less focused on teaching skills and knowledge and includes a number of non-instructional criteria such as how students walk down hallways, says Wigler. “Why is a teacher being evaluated on how their bulletin boards look?” he says. “That doesn’t get to the heart of instruction.”

Veteran mentors will rate new teachers on a scale of 1 (the lowest) to 3 in each skill. Eight mentors will be full-time coaches who observe each newcomer before evaluating him or her. They will work a longer school day, receive a 20 percent salary boost plus a $5,000 bonus.

Based on the evaluations, a nine-member committee of union and district officials, CEO Arne Duncan and CTU president Stewart among them, will make the final decision on whether to retain teachers who get low ratings in the pilot program. Principals have sole hiring and firing authority under the traditional evaluation program.

Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester, New York Federation of Teachers and an expert on peer evaluation, says such programs have spread to “the more progressive” districts across the country since being pioneered in Toledo, Ohio in the 1980s. “The fears that such a program will be divisive and turn teacher against teacher, or that it won’t improve the quality of teachers, have turned out to be unfounded,” Urbanski says.

A political football

Members of Pro-Active Chicago Teachers (PACT), the opposition caucus that is expected to slate Lynch as its presidential candidate next spring, sounded the alarm over an initial plan by CPS and the union to change state law to accommodate the pilot. Under the Illinois School Code, only those who have a Type 75 administrative certificate, which all principals are required to have, can evaluate teachers. Now, the district and the union are planning to obtain a waiver from the Illinois State Board of Education.

PACT maintains that the pilot, which is sanctioned in the union contract as part of an amendment related to the Fresh Start program, should be voted on by members.

“When we had changes to the contract, we didn’t move forward without going to the House of Delegates,” notes Lynch, who adds that the current union leadership initially voted against Fresh Start’s precursor, the partnership schools initiative.

Wigler counters that the pilot is part of an existing contract agreement and “is not something that needs member ratification.”

To contact Lorraine Forte, call (312) 673-3881 or send an e-mail to forte@catalyst-chicago.org.