Throughout the country school districts have instituted different methods of weakening teacher tenure. In California, as in some other states this policy is called Peer Assistance and Review.
What is Peer Assistance and Review?
Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) is a remedial program for teachers who receive an unsatisfactory performance review. The teacher participates in the program from 1-2 years. If the teacher has shown “satisfactory” improvement the teacher is exited out of the program. However, if the teacher hasn’t shown enough improvement as measured by the PAR Panel, they are recommended for termination.
Even the most progressive educators argue that PAR is a vital program for teacher quality and remediation. PAR is beloved among union leaders and progressive educators alike.
“One reform for improving teacher quality – Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) – offers an alternative approach to these cursory evaluation systems. PAR focuses not only on supporting and assessing individual teachers, but also on expanding the capacity of the school and district to improve teaching and learning. Recently, many educational observers and policymakers, including President Barack Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, have pointed to PAR as an approach with great potential for improving professional evaluation and teacher quality (Obama, 2009; Duncan, 2009; Dillon, 2008; Toch & Rothman, 2008; Goldstein, 2007; Koppich, 2005; Goldstein, 2004).” Reference: ()
Historian Diane Ravitch writes about PAR in her blog:
“There have been few litigation challenges to the discharges. The overwhelming majority of teachers think the system is fair. There is no high-stakes-testing, with all its adverse side effects. Briefly, principals identify teachers as possibly poor-performers; senior consulting teachers (who do not report to the principal) intensively monitor/evaluate the identified teachers; a consulting-teachers/principals committee makes the final discharge decision. It’s unclear why PAR has received so little public attention. The NY Times wrote a column praising PAR. But, the media and ed bloggers have otherwise largely ignored it. Opponents of high-stakes-testing should study and publicize PAR — or something like it — as an inexpensive, productive alternative to the destructive high-stakes-testing as a way to identify/remove ineffective teachers.” (Reference: DianeRavitch.net April 24, 2012)
Who are the Bad Teachers?: Strong Evidence of Discrimination
Although PAR has been praised publicly, there has been little publicity about the teachers who are placed in this program. Who are these bad teachers? What does the PAR process look like in action?
We outline here our experience with PAR in Berkeley, California, the city known internationally as a bastion of progressive ideas with a history of defending freedom of expression. We begin by describing the demographics of the 41 teachers selected for PAR since the beginning of the program in 2002. This data was obtained through a California public records request by author Brian Crowell (at that point Brian was a union rep at Berkeley High.) The district did not share the data until school board president Josh Daniels intervened. Although we expected the data to show bias, we were shocked at the extent of the disparity.
· In a district that is composed of about 6.5% African American teachers, a startling 10 out of 41 teachers (or 24%) were referred to PAR.
· Thirty-five of the 41 teachers placed in PAR were in column 6 or 7 representing the most highly educated teachers on the salary schedule.
· The average step placement of all teachers in PAR was 15 years of experience.
· Of the 22 women placed in PAR, 20 the women were 55 years of age or older. The women teachers also had more years of experience (were at higher steps on the salary schedule.)
Math teachers at Berkeley High School analyzed this data more. Specifically we wondered how likely it was that data like this would happen by accident, or randomly.
First we looked at the African American teacher statistics. How likely is it that 10 out of 41 teachers would be African American if chosen randomly from a pool of 6.5%? Using some advanced high school math we found this probability to be a tiny 0.022%. Legally speaking, this would fall in the category of disparate impact discrimination.
Next we looked at the numbers for women age 55 and older. What is the probability that 19 of 21 women teachers in the district would be over the 55 and older if chosen randomly? This probability turned out to be even more dramatic. In our estimate of the California state demographic for teachers, roughly 21.5% of teachers are over the age of 55. Again using some advanced high school math, the chances that 19 of 21 female teachers would be 55 and over if chosen randomly is an astonishing 0.000000013%. This small probability would fall under the legal definition of disparate treatment discrimination.
Who are the Bad Teachers?: Two Case Studies
This year 3 additional teachers have been referred to the PAR program. Two of them are teachers of color; one of them is a woman over 55. We describe two of these teachers below.
Bad Teacher #1: The Black Teacher
Brian Crowell is a 36-year old African American history teacher at Berkeley High. Brian served as a union representative for 4 years. Immediately after disclosure of the statistics described above Brian received a failing evaluation and was immediately referred to PAR. He was then threatened by the Berkeley Unified central administration with immediate termination. Previous to his disclosure of the PAR data Brian’s teaching had been praised by administration. Here is a quote about Brian Crowell’s teaching from Berkeley High principal Pasquale Scuderi written a few months earlier:
“Really was reminded of early observations of you back in ‘06. You are such a good storyteller and while I am sometimes cautious about teacher talk/lecture, you really had a big chunk of the class engaged and seemed, if I’m right, to be connecting early European trade/explorations with how those arrangements look today.
Feedback: Widespread engagement — several students were really dialed into your presentation. very pleased to see multiple African-American students actively engaged in the discussion; we need this type of involvement to be more commonplace in all classrooms for students of color.”
Principal Pasquale Scuderi email to Brian Crowell, Sept. 18, 2012
Students responded loudly when they heard of their history teacher’s job being threatened. Here is a quote from a junior written directly to the school board.
Hello Board Members,
..... I am a junior at Berkeley High School in Academic Choice. Upon hearing of Brian Crowell being put on BPAR, I felt compelled to write to you. I had Mr. Crowell for both Freshman and Sophomore year and can tell you he has been one of the best, most supportive teachers I have ever had. Mr. Crowell was amazing in the way he connected the past to the present and the way in which he prepared us for AP classes, STAR testing and the future. He taught us to use our own thoughts to make important arguments through our research papers, and also gave us all a strong understanding of our government… (3/28/13)
Bad Teacher #2: The Experienced Woman
Lucinda Daly is a 61-year-old experienced photography teacher at Berkeley High. She had been teaching for 25 years with strong evaluations and positive experiences with students. She maintains two darkrooms, brings students on annual field trips to Yosemite, and has regular photo exhibits popular among parents and other community members. She had never heard of PAR and was amazed to find herself referred.
Students describe Daly’s teaching in glowing terms. Here is a letter to the school board from a graduate:
“After taking two years of photo with Ms Daly, I have grown in unexpected and lasting ways as an artist and as a person. She is exceptional at teaching the fundamental techniques while allowing enough flexibility for students to work however they need to.
I understand that she was given an "unsatisfactory" evaluation by Mr. Melgoza, perhaps because of the loose structure of the class. But that productive chaos is actually crucial for allowing the artistic process to take place. In my opinion, the quality of work coming out of her classes would not be at nearly the same level if the class were quiet and orderly, and more aspects of the work process were stringently regulated.
The way to judge the quality of Ms. Daly's teaching should be in the evaluation of the work her students produce, not how orderly her class may appear to be. Her encouragement to push the boundaries of what the assignments ask for and openness to experimentation with techniques (which can sometimes be messy and disorganized) has taken me to artistic places I never thought I would reach when I first enrolled in her class.
Furthermore, in an academic environment where students are constantly pressured to take increasingly rigorous classes, it is easy to become over-stressed. The positive effect of having a space in which to set aside traditional measures of success and achievement, and simply spend time creating in a low-pressure environment, cannot be overstated.”
Teacher’s Health and Future after PAR
One observation shared by every teacher put in PAR was a significant negative impact on their health. Teachers report anxiety, depression, insomnia, panic disorder, lack of appetite, paranoia, disorientation and confusion. These illnesses were documented repeatedly by doctors. In a profession that is already increasingly challenging, the experience of having one’s job scrutinized and job security threatened pushes teachers to the edge. Indeed, what jobs are available to an experienced teacher who has been dismissed? Where are the education ads for a teacher with 10+ years of experience?
Our experience with PAR in Berkeley raises these questions for all of us.
Silencing Our Voices and Threatening Academic Freedom
We have outlined the way the PAR has unfairly targeted subgroups of teachers. We conclude with an observation about what this means to our students and classrooms.
These kinds of programs diminish teacher power, and attempt to silence the voices of teachers. Teachers who speak or teach differently can be especially popular targets. Teachers of color and experienced women are often the most expressive, creative, and pedagogically divergent teachers. We worry that through racial profiling and age and gender discrimination, these voices will be silenced.
In a time when our students and world need rich, thoughtful and courageous classroom experiences, programs like PAR are especially destructive to public education. California’s per pupil funding is down 13.8% since The Great Recession. Do other states and districts have similar demographics when in comes to PAR participants? This is just the beginning of a long discussion about education, labor, civil rights and the future of public education at large.
Masha Albrecht is a Math Teacher at Berkeley High School
Brian Crowell is a Social Science Teacher at Berkeley High School