Throwing a Lifeline to Struggling Teachers
Montgomery Program Embraces Peer Review

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.

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.

In the decade before peer review began in the county, one teacher was removed for performance, said Doug Prouty, president-elect of the Montgomery County Education Association. Principals would encourage ineffective teachers to transfer or "make things so uncomfortable for that person, they would want to transfer," he said.

Teacher firings are rare in local public schools. Fairfax County schools, the area's largest system, fired no teachers for poor performance in the 2008-09 academic year, according to labor and management officials. Two were dismissed the year before. Mark Glaser, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said teachers who don't meet standards are sometimes persuaded to resign.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has fought the Washington Teachers' Union for the right to remove ineffective teachers. She is trying to oust 80 teachers this summer under a seldom-used rule, predating her two-year tenure, that allows dismissal after 90 days' probation. The union opposes the firings, saying no effort was made to help the teachers improve.

WTU President George Parker said the union proposed that D.C. schools adopt peer review in contract negotiations. "Look, we don't want to have incompetent teachers in the classroom, either," he said.

Rhee said she favors a system of evaluation, support and review more comprehensive than Toledo's. She said she is an "eternal optimist" about collaboration with the union. But the District is not Montgomery; labor relations are comparatively strained. "Do I think we're going to get there tomorrow?" she said. "Probably not."

In 28 years, peer review has winnowed almost 500 teachers from Toledo schools, said Dal Lawrence, who created the program as president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers. In the five years before the program, no teacher in the city had been dismissed for performance.

"I had a hunch that we could decide in two semesters whether someone could teach in Toledo schools or not," Lawrence said.

The number of teachers leaving Montgomery schools this year through peer review is statistically small: 31 out of 11,500. But school officials point to cumulative effects.

Teachers are selected for peer review based on a poor job evaluation. Each year, the program weeds out 2 to 3 percent of the county's probationary teachers, along with a smaller number of tenured faculty. (Of 66 teachers in peer review this year, 27 had tenure.) In nine academic years, peer review has pared 403 teachers from the system.

"Does it get every low-achieving teacher? No. But it's a step in the right direction," said Thomas Toch of the Washington-based think tank Education Sector, who has studied the program. "It helps create a professional climate in the school system, and that's a good thing."

Bernstein, 48, entered peer review after the 2007-08 school year with assurances that there was no danger of losing her job. She was smart, well-liked, committed to her students and more than competent in mathematics.

"I wasn't put in this program to be ousted," she said. "And that was made very, very clear to me."

Although a capable teacher, Bernstein had fallen weeks behind the pace of the county curriculum. She was spending too much time going over homework in class, over-explaining, stretching one-day lessons into two, out of fear her students were not mastering the material.

"They give you 42 minutes, which sounds like a lot," she said. "It can take 10 minutes just to sharpen their pencils."

Her case fell to Theresa Nebel Robinson, one of 28 teachers designated to help others. They travel the county, meeting with dozens of targeted teachers. The rest of their time is devoted to the county's hundreds of novice teachers, who are paired with mentors to help overcome first-year challenges.

The job required Robinson to make announced and unannounced visits to Bernstein's classroom. One day before Thanksgiving, Robinson watched Bernstein wrestle for control of her class.

"I'm waiting on . . . just about everybody," Bernstein said. "I don't see eyes, and I'm hearing a lot of talking." She rang the cowbell once, twice. "What should you do when you hear that bell? Stop, look and listen."

She admonished one girl for writing on her desk and separated another from her four-desk "pod." Flustered but determined, she soldiered on and completed the lesson on multiplying decimals without further interruption.

Robinson visited Bernstein's classroom 20 times in the school year and conversed with her 40 more times by telephone and e-mail, tracking her progress.

Bernstein was having trouble keeping every student engaged. Early in the school year, she thought of using bingo balls to call on students at random. She started passing around math problems on a tablet-size dry-erase board and having each student contribute a piece of the solution. Students were becoming engaged.

By the end of April, Bernstein had improved so much that Robinson recommended her release from peer review. In her final report, Robinson noted the bingo balls, the cowbell and how Bernstein had helped students understand pi by unrolling a circle into a line segment to show how circumference related to diameter.

In May, standing before a quiet and attentive class, Bernstein moved briskly through homework on prime numbers, then delivered a lesson on probability.

"If the weatherman says there's a 100 percent chance of rain today," she asked, "am I going to get wet if I go outside without my umbrella?" Students nodded.

"I have a few things to work on this summer," Bernstein said later in the empty classroom. "But that's what summer's for."

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