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Peer Review Programs Offer Mentorship to Struggling Teachers

Roberto Clemente Middle School teacher Jean Bernstein high-fives Jason Martinez for getting an A on a test. Bernstein participates in a program that identifies struggling teachers and helps them improve.
Roberto Clemente Middle School teacher Jean Bernstein high-fives Jason Martinez for getting an A on a test. Bernstein participates in a program that identifies struggling teachers and helps them improve. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 29, 2009

Jean Bernstein rang a cowbell, her cue to quiet the sixth-graders at Roberto Clemente Middle School for a lesson on multiplying decimals. "You need to settle down," she said.

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But that afternoon in Germantown, students seemed intent on chatting, clapping and exchanging high-fives. As the teacher led the class through a sheet of problems, one boy punctuated every answer by exclaiming, "I agree!"

The students might have cut Bernstein some slack had they known that she, too, was being graded.

Last fall, Bernstein entered Peer Assistance and Review, a Montgomery County program that identifies struggling teachers and tries to help them improve. Those who do not face dismissal.

Peer review, embraced by more than 80 school systems nationwide, confronts one of public education's most vexing problems: What to do with under-performing teachers?

Union contracts and tenure rules tend to make it difficult to dismiss ineffective teachers. But in Montgomery, the union is teaming with school officials to weed out -- or, better yet, help improve -- teachers who fall short.

Introduced by teachers in Toledo in 1981, peer review arrived in Montgomery 10 years ago and is considered in many quarters a promising solution to the labor-management impasse over teacher dismissals. The National Education Association has encouraged peer review since the mid-1990s. The American Federation of Teachers, which had supported it even earlier, last year passed a resolution calling on affiliates to consider the program.

But no other school system in the D.C. region has embraced peer review, and the program has expanded slowly. Federation President Randi Weingarten said peer review "takes real collaboration between the superintendent and the union leader." Often, the two are adversaries.

Peer review gives Maryland's largest school system the power to dismiss under-performers. It gives struggling teachers a chance to rebuild skills. Of 66 Montgomery teachers in peer review in the 2008-09 school year, 10 are being dismissed and 21 have resigned or retired. Five will remain in review for a second year. The remaining 30 will successfully exit.

"We've changed the whole culture from 'gotcha' to support," said Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

Peer review, which costs Montgomery schools $2 million a year, pairs a struggling teacher with a mentor. Those who improve return to the classroom. Those who do not go before a panel of 16 teachers and principals that amounts to an impartial court. It decides whether to recommend termination or a second year of monitoring. No one gets more than two years.

In a session observed by a reporter, a middle school principal pleaded with the panel to endorse firing a teacher who could not control her classroom. "It's been a two-year ordeal for me," he said. The mentor on the case agreed. But after the principal left the hearing room, the teacher said the principal had undermined her. "I love teaching," she said. "I love my job. I love working in Montgomery County." The panel gave her another year to shape up.

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